ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Senator Patricia Van Pelt, a Chicago Democrat, has been removed as a co-sponsor of the bill to legalize recreational cannabis after a report revealed she was selling tickets to her get-rich-quick seminars where she offered investment tips on hot cannabis stocks.
Van Pelt is also listed as the President and co-founder of Wakanna, a company that currently sells essential oils but that has plans to sell cannabis products once the product is legal in Illinois. Van Pelt’s company is selling ownership stake to investors and offering them assurances that their license will be approved, although that licensing process has not yet been established, let alone completed.
Lawmakers addressed Van Pelt’s scheme during a debate in the Senate Executive Committee on Wednesday.
Senator Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, asked, “Is there anything in the bill that would give the public security that okay we don’t have insiders maneuvering this and that’s who’s winding up with the licenses?”
“I think you know that I’m committed to ethical safeguards as much as anyone here in the room,” Senator Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and lead sponsor of the plan to legalize cannabis answered. “To the extent that we don’t have this in here right now in the way we should, I very much look forward to working with you on the best ways of accomplishing that.”
Steans later reiterated that Senate legal staff is “developing recommendations on ethical safeguards to include in the bill.”
“I just hope that every Senator in here respect the ethics,” Senator Michael Hastings, a Tinley Park Democrat, said after overseeing the Wednesday hearing. “This is a very special place to be a part of in the Senate. I think senators and representatives understand they should never disrespect the office. If they are ever going to go ahead and engage in a business dealings, they should refer to the ethics rules that are established by law.”
Hastings used his gavel to twice interrupt a tense exchange between Senate Majority Leader Kim Lightford and NAACP Illinois President Teresa Haley.
“I am tired of legislators again getting rich on the back of poor people,” Haley said during her testimony.
“You just said you’re sick and tired of legislators getting rich,” Lightford questioned. “How would a legislator get rich from this legislation?”
“It is my understanding that the legislators who are pushing this are also looking to own dispensaries,” Haley retorted, drawing audible growns of disapproval from the lawmakers.
Just as Hastings was starting to interject, Lightford responded.
“I appreciate your response,” she said, “but I want you to know that is a part of social equity, and any member, if they are African-American, Hispanic or the like, that is a part of the medical industry now has no African-American ownership, no minority ownership, all Caucasian male. So right now, someone else is getting rich off of the industry. So I think it’s disingenuous for you to sit there and say that we are all looking to get rich off of the industry.”
“So is that a reason to approve it so you can get rich off of it,” Haley cross-examined. “Off the back of poor people?”
“Don’t cut me off,” Lightford warned. “Don’t cut me off. I think your comment is inappropriate.”
Haley shot back, “I think your response is inappropriate.”
“I very rarely do this,” Hastings interjected with his gavel. I’m just going to say that this committee is probably one of the most senior Senate committees where there is order and decorum. I demand as the chairman respectful answers and obviously respectful comments, or else we just won’t have this panel.”
Senator Righter said Van Pelt’s effort to cash in on an industry while she was also a co-sponsor of the bill was “embarrassing to the institution of the Senate.”
“The public is watching us,” he said. “The public has to have confidence in the people here, in the process here. When you see one of the members of the chamber clearly looking to cash in on a policy that she believes is going to happen, and then she is an insider in that policy, that is completely inappropriate.”
After the committee concluded, Lightford said she was completely caught off guard by Haley’s suggestion that sitting lawmakers were looking to profit on legal pot, and said she was unaware of Van Pelt’s scheme at the time. However, she did suggest that Van Pelt’s interest in the cannabis industry could present a conflict of interest.
“If you are involved in an issue, it is something that maybe you would sustain from voting on,” she said. “But I’m not sure of the details and I don’t know how deeply she is involved or not.”
She also cautioned against Van Pelt’s decision to sell tickets for admission to private events where she offers investment advice about an industry where lawmakers are sifting through sensitive, private information.
“I don’t think that’s a wise decision,” Lightford said, distancing herself from Van Pelt. “I don’t know that I support any of that, and I will look forward to having a conversation with her and learning about what it is that’s going on because I really don’t know. So I don’t have an opinion personally about her, I just think none of us should be engaged with any type of conversations such as that. We are here as lawmakers to pass the best law that we can that can have the best impact on our community, on our budget, and everything moving forward.
“We’re just trying to do our jobs. If there is a bad apple in the bunch, then that would be addressed.”