Inspector General should probe Cook County commissioner, chief of staff amid pot firm revelations, ethics experts say

Commissioner Bridget Degnen and top aide Tara Meyer, both previously served as the state deputy director of medical cannabis. Now, they’re working with a firm that is a finalist for multiple marijuana dispensary licenses.

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Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen speaks during a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve at the County Building, Tuesday last December, the same month she says she locked into an agreement to write applications for AmeriCann Dream.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A Cook County commissioner and her chief of staff should be investigated for joining a fledgling pot company after serving as state cannabis regulators, government ethics experts said.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen, a Chicago Democrat representing the 12th District, acknowledged this month that she’s working with Americanna Dream, a startup seeking 10 licenses to operate recreational marijuana dispensaries. The Sun-Times has since learned that her chief of staff and general counsel, Tara Meyer, is also partnered with the company, which is among 21 finalists in a process that was designed to favor social equity candidates.

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Tara Meyer

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Former state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-29th), now chair of the Center for Illinois Politics, said there are simply “too many missing pieces to this puzzle” and recommended that the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General probe the matter.

“Because this is an emerging lucrative industry in Illinois, we must protect the integrity of how licensing decisions are made and who benefits from them,” Garrett said.

Meyer succeeded Degnen as the state’s deputy director of medical cannabis but eventually left that post in December 2018 to serve in her current role. Meyer and Degnen said they locked into agreements last December to write applications for AmeriCanna Dream that could net them equity in the company.

Based on Meyer’s account, she appears to have narrowly avoided violating the state’s “revolving door” law when she jumped from serving as a top cannabis regulator to a potential stakeholder in the industry. Meyer holds that she was “fully compliant” with the law and “did not violate the revolving door clause.”

Meyer and Degnen ultimately penned at least 36 perfect applications for dispensary licenses, which were due by Jan. 2. The upcoming licenses will be issued by the same agency that employed Meyer and Degnen, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Meyer and Degnen also manage a limited liability company that was registered last year — though Degnen insisted it was never used for anything. Nevertheless, Garrett specifically raised alarms about that company.

“There are clearly legitimate issues as to the timeline and nature of Degnen’s LLC’s work that warrant an independent third party review — such as requesting the office of the inspector general to rule on the revolving door process Degnen and Meyer pursued along with a ruling on potential conflicts of interest,” she said.

Former Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted that Meyer’s work in the cannabis industry “is clearly a conflict of interest” as he echoed Garrett’s call for an investigation.

“I think it’s an appropriate step and the inspector general can also widen the investigation to see if they used any undue influence in filling out the application and making the bid,” Simpson said.

Under the “revolving door” law, former state workers are prohibited from accepting a job or compensation from an employer affected by their regulatory or licensing decisions over the previous year. Starting next year, former state employees involved in cannabis licensing will have to wait two years to hold a stake in a pot company after leaving their state jobs.

According to a resignation letter obtained by the Sun-Times, Meyer announced that her last day at the IDFPR was Nov. 28, 2018. Her LinkedIn profile states that she remained at the agency until December of that year.

In a statement, Meyer said she “received payment and signed the operating agreement” with AmeriCanna Dream in December of 2019.

“I received a stipend and if licensed will receive a small percentage of equity,” Meyer told the Sun-Times. “I have not completed any other work on behalf of AmeriCanna Dream.”

While Meyer said she didn’t formally join AmeriCanna Dream until late last year, she and Degnen were allegedly involved in the push to obtain cannabis licenses before then. They also took the steps to register their company, TMBD LLC, on Aug. 26, 2019.

Just two days after that company was organized, Nonna and David Knapp emailed Degnen to ask for a letter of recommendation to include in their own dispensary application. The couple previously owned New Age Care, a medical marijuana shop in Mount Prospect.

Nonna Knapp said Degnen called back in September of that year and told her that neither she nor Meyer could write a letter in support because they had “a conflict of interest due to another commitment” with an applicant.

That call came after Degnen pitched herself as an expert and offered application help to another group in June 2019. One of the applicants who met with Degnen said she somehow “knew how these [applications] were going to get scored” — down to “every little detail.”

On Wednesday, that applicant’s partner said Degnen informed them that she was working with “a team” but didn’t specifically mention Meyer.

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