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Cook County commissioner — an ex-pot regulator — admits ownership in cannabis firm

After dodging questions for weeks, Commissioner Bridget Degnen said she “complied with all applicable laws governing transparency with respect to my involvement with this project.”

Bridget Degnen, Cook County Board Democratic primary candidate. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

After serving as one of Illinois’ top cannabis regulators, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen confirmed Tuesday she has an ownership stake in a company vying for the right to open multiple pot shops across the state.

A spokeswoman for Degnen told the Sun-Times Tuesday the commissioner is part owner of Americanna Dream and was paid a stipend to write dispensary applications for the company.

The Highland Park-based firm submitted 36 perfect applications, beating out hundreds of other applicants to become a finalist in the state competition for the next round of dispensary licenses. The company has the maximum 10 spots in a lottery that will determine the winners of the 75 new licenses, each of which will likely be worth millions of dollars.

But Degnen’s ownership stake isn’t worth anything unless the company wins a license, according to her spokeswoman, who wouldn’t confirm how much Degnen’s been paid so far or what percentage of the company she owns.

The Chicago Democrat — who represents the county’s 12th District and campaigned on a promise to serve as a “full-time” commissioner — also issued a statement Tuesday defending her work for the “majority Black-owned social equity dispensary applicant.”

However, she didn’t reveal the names of any other owners. State records show Americanna Dream’s only listed manager is a white real estate professional with ties to the state’s legal cannabis industry.

“I ensured I complied with all applicable laws governing transparency with respect to my involvement with this project, including completing a statement of economic interest form as required by Cook County, and exceeding any applicable state revolving door requirements by several years,” Degnen said after initially dodging questions the Sun-Times posed over the last few weeks.

The Sun-Times previously reported Degnen pitched herself as an expert last summer as she offered to write applications for another group seeking dispensary licenses. One of those applicants said it seemed like Degnen “knew what the application looked like before anyone else did.”

Before running for office in 2017, Degnen worked for four years as the deputy director of medical cannabis at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the state agency that will issue the dispensary licenses. Years later, she still has deep connections to Illinois’ weed industry.

Companies and individuals tied to the booming business have flooded Degnen’s campaign coffers with nearly $20,000 in donations, according to a Sun-Times analysis. Another $25,000 has come from a political action committee tied to attorney Brendan Shiller, who’s working on behalf of some of the other lottery contestants.

Shiller has also represented Perry Mandera, the former strip club proprietor who now owns The Herbal Care Center dispensary on the Near West Side. Mandera leases the dope shop from a real estate company that has included Degnen’s husband, the chief financial officer for the Cinespace film studio.

Long lines formed outside of The Herbal Care Center on the first day of legal recreational weed sales on Jan. 1.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Company’s manager also has ties to weed biz

Records maintained by the Illinois secretary of state’s office show Americanna Dream’s only registered manager is Adam Saffro, who also has connections to Illinois’ cannabis industry.

Saffro currently serves as managing director of New Era Chicago, a real estate firm with offices in Logan Square. Sammy Dorf, co-founder and president of the major North Center-based cannabis firm Verano Holdings, previously worked for nearly seven years as a real estate broker for New Era Chicago, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Saffro is also the co-owner of an old bank building in Logan Square where the Loop-based pot giant PharmaCann hopes to set up a weed store.

He didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

‘American nightmare’

The revelation about Degnen’s work for Americanna Dream comes as the rollout of recreational weed remains mired in controversy.

Amid a series of lawsuits and revelations that clouted figures were attached to some of the groups already tapped for the lottery, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that more than 900 groups initially left out would be given a second chance to make the cut.

Last week, jilted applicants held a demonstration outside the Cook County Building to raise concerns about the grading process and call for a formal investigation into Degnen’s pot-related ties.

“Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen is said to be aligned with Americanna Dream, which is turning out to be a nightmare — American nightmare — for Black people,” said Rickey Hendon, a former Democratic state senator and dispensary applicant.

After a spokesman for Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle rebuffed the calls for a probe, Commissioner Scott Britton said he wouldn’t be opposed to broadly addressing the issue during a meeting of the county’s Cannabis Commission.

“I do think that having a further discussion of the issue, not necessarily just her involvement but I think the issue generally, is what the purpose of the commission is,” Britton said.

Rickey Hendon, a former Democratic state senator, last week called for an investigation into Commissioner Bridget Degnen’s pot ties.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times