ILLINOIS (WCIA) -- Dozens of social media posts and promotional videos posted online reveal State Senator Patricia Van Pelt, a Chicago Democrat, is looking to cash in on cannabis and go "riding the wave with the rich" in the final days leading up to a highly anticipated vote that could legalize recreational marijuana for adult use in the state.
Since her re-election victory in November 2018, Van Pelt has launched an aggressive social media campaign recruiting potential investors to attend her seminars. Tickets for her upcoming events are listed on Eventbrite at a non-refundable rate of $99.95.
"You're going to learn how to invest in the stock market and what cannabis companies are viable," Van Pelt said in a video she posted online to promote Wakanna, a company she co-founded last month along with three other women.
In one post, Van Pelt says you can purchase cannabis stock at $0.72 cents per share. In another post, she urges potential investors to "move expeditiously" and "imagine going from $0.02 cents a share to $60 a share in three years," which would be a 3,000 percent return on investment.
She also claimed she nearly doubled her money in a matter of roughly three weeks.
"I bought some stock on December 19th," she told the crowd. "Cannabis stock. And it cost me $13 a share. By January 4th, it was worth $24 a share."
Nic Gordon, a certified financial planner at Robert Gordon and Associates in Springfield, stressed that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," and cautioned investors to be wary of the pitfalls of investing in young, unestablished privately held companies.
"Publicly held companies, you can invest and know a lot more information that goes into your investment making decision," he said. "[A] privately held company, you may not know everything that there is to know -- and that you should know -- before you invest in them."
Van Pelt, an evangelist by trade, hasn't always been able to pick a winner in the business world. In 2015, while in office, she promoted a multi-level marketing pyramid scheme that later ended abruptly when its owners were convicted for dodging taxes and defrauding investors of $4 million dollars.
Undeterred by ethics laws that prohibit public officials from using their office to enrich themselves, Van Pelt uses her personal Facebook page to post images of her private meetings with Governor J.B. Pritzker, including images of March 21st Legislative Black Caucus meeting agenda which outlined how the state should prioritize marijuana shop licenses for black business owners.
Van Pelt's insinuation was "totally inappropriate," a top ranking member of the Legislative Black Caucus told WCIA. Speaking on a condition of anonymity, the lawmaker said it was "just wrong" for "someone in [Van Pelt's] position of power and influence to try and make money for herself."
After reviewing several Facebook posts, the source felt Van Pelt was intentionally misleading the people in her district or in her church congregation.
"Because she's a senator, they must think, 'Oh, she must know something!'"
Van Pelt refused to answer questions about her business on camera, but did acknowledge she is actively selling ownership stake in her newly formed, privately held company. She also said that she hopes all black-owned businesses, including hers, win a state license to sell marijuana. She did not explain how she could declare with confidence which cannabis companies are "viable," except to say that she had done research into the industry. She declined to share a copy of her seminar materials, but offered to sell a ticket for admission at her set price of $99.
Van Pelt's personal involvement in a company that could reap handsome profits in the wake of legalization has raised ethical questions about the potential for a conflict of interest. Several members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, who are legally restricted from discussing open investigations, said they were unaware of Van Pelt's activities, but acknowledged that her actions were troublesome, and that they could easily trigger an ethics complaint to the Legislative Inspector General.
Van Pelt did not say whether or not she plans to vote on the cannabis legislation when it arrives on the floor in the Senate. John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, said, “Each caucus has a designated ethics officer to advise members. That advice is offered on an individual and confidential basis.”
Senate Parliamentarian Giovanni Randazzo serves as the chief legal counsel for Senate Democrats. Van Pelt says she consulted briefly with Randazzo regarding the matter after it was brought to his attention on Tuesday.
Reached by phone, a customer service representative who handles investment inquiries for Wakanna said the company currently sells essential oils, but confirmed it did have plans to enter the cannabis industry soon. The representative could not specify how much investment capital the company was seeking, but promptly offered to set up a direct call with Van Pelt so she could provide assurances to investors that their money would not be lost. The representative said she did not know how the company or its owners could offer certainty that their license to operate would be granted by the state, but insisted Van Pelt would know how to secure the license.
During a recent press conference unveiling the current version of the measure to legalize cannabis, Pritzker described "equity as our north star" in the negotiation process, and stated that "the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color."
"Our approach makes Illinois the first state in the nation to place status as a social equity applicant into the core scoring system for applications," Pritzker said to applause.
Critics of the state's 2013 rollout of the medical marijuana program said a secretive licensing process resulted in awarding lucrative business to white, wealthy business owners, and did not adequately include contracts or licenses for minority owned businesses.
Juliana Stratton, the state's first African-American Lieutenant Governor, highlighted how communities of color were disproportionately detained for marijuana.
"Despite fairly equal usage rates, blacks are over three-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis," she said at the press event earlier this month.
"The bill doesn't speak to race at all," bill sponsor Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) said on Tuesday when asked about the licensing process. "What we are speaking to is communities that have been disproportionately impacted and hurt by over-incarceration. We have social equity applicants who do get a leg up. Those social equity applicants have to come from areas that meet a couple criteria: high poverty that is defined in a couple different ways, and a population that has been highly incarcerated compared to the average population."
Steans declined to comment on Van Pelt's seminar marketing tactics. Her cannabis bill, Senate Bill 7, is scheduled for a subject matter hearing in the Senate Executive Committee on Wednesday, May 15th.