Marijuana company investigated for pay to play? Hired Madigan cronies.

Marijuana company investigated for pay to play? Hired Madigan cronies.

A Chicago-based marijuana company is facing a federal investigation into whether it bought influence to gain state licenses, sources told the Chicago Tribune. It hired four close associates of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Federal investigators are conducting a probe into influence peddling for marijuana licenses, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Tribune reported March 30 that sources revealed a federal investigation is underway into a possible pay-to-play system between Illinois politicians and Chicago-based marijuana company Green Thumb Industries. GTI was unaware of the probe and maintains high ethical and compliance standards, a company spokeswoman said.

Federal investigators are exploring the role of campaign donations made by GTI subsidiaries to state lawmakers in securing growing and distribution licenses for the firm, the Tribune reported. Now one of the largest pot companies in the nation, GTI helped secure its rise by employing four consultants and lobbyists with ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, including confidant Michael McClain, who was indicted in the ComEd bribery scandal.

GTI was one of the first pot companies in Illinois to acquire a license to grow medical marijuana after legalization in 2013. As a medical cannabis producer, GTI was also given one of the first licenses for the recreational sale of cannabis after legalization passed in 2019.

State records show GTI executives and affiliates spread cash to numerous politicians and political action committees who were instrumental in pot legalization. GTI donated $60,000 through three affiliated companies to ICANN, a pro-cannabis political action committee.

Records show a month later state Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the main sponsor of a 2018 bill to expand medical marijuana laws, received a $50,000 check from ICANN. The House Republican Organization and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee both received checks worth $5,000.

“We believe in the democratic process including the transparency of political contributions,” GTI spokeswoman Linda Marsicano said in a 2019 statement.

A pending lawsuit against GTI CEO Ben Kovler by a former business partner alleged Kovler bragged in a 2014 meeting that his political and business connections would guarantee GTI acquire any licenses they needed.

“My access to capital and the relationships I have forged within the Illinois business and political world from (Chicago) to Springfield, as well as my family’s name, means that without me it is doubtful you will even secure one license,” Kovler allegedly told the former partner, according to the Cook County Circuit Court filing.

Kovler has denied making the statement. His family founded the Jim Beam whiskey company.

No charges have been filed against GTI as part of the investigation.

The investigation was revealed on the same day charges were filed against a longtime political operative for Chicago Ald. Ed Burke and the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval, both of whom were previously charged with corruption.

Rudy Acosta Sr. was charged with withholding information from the FBI about cash payments he made to an unnamed senator, which the Chicago Sun-Times confirmed was Sandoval. Sandoval last year pleaded guilty to accepting $250,000 in bribes. Burke was indicted on 14 counts of corruption in May 2019.

Then on March 31 former state Sen. Annazette Collins was charged with federal tax crimes. She is now a lobbyists and has been tied to two ongoing federal investigations: the $1.3 million ComEd bribery scandal and a federal bribery probe into unlicensed gambling machines.

Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation and that corruption comes with a heavy price tag for the state economy – more than $550 million per year.

Not only does this cost all Illinois taxpayers, but it shakes residents’ faith in state and local politicians when they use positions of public trust to put their personal gain ahead of public good.

Power has been taken from Madigan and Burke. The ongoing federal corruption probes  are a reminder that Illinois has a lot of work ahead to undo the political culture of corruption.

State lawmakers are considering reforms that could help change the culture by making politics more transparent and ethical. Ethics reform bills would ban lobbying by sitting lawmakers, block the Statehouse’s revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying, make financial disclosure statements more revealing, and empower the legislative inspector general to investigate and publish political misconduct without lawmaker approval.

Bribes and influence peddling should become the relics of Illinois politics, not standard operating procedures.

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