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I was almost immediately hooked after I first saw a campaign ad for Chicago congressional candidate Benjamin Thomas Wolf last week, showing him smoking a joint in front of an American flag. "Legalize Cannabis. Vote March 20," it said. He looked smart and sophisticated.
In media interviews and on his social media pages, Wolf said he was a "former FBI agent" and "Iraq Veteran" who had also worked overseas as a "presidential envoy" with the U.S. State Department.
He also claimed to be a "Professor of Human Rights" at Roosevelt University. He had photos of himself with three smiling children.
Early last week, I tweeted Wolf's weed ad, which earned him the nickname the "Cannabis Candidate"; it got retweeted more than 2,400 times. Wolf soon messaged me: "Thanks for your support. You should stop by the office!"
I was excited and flattered to meet him. So that night I went to his office at 2048 W. Chicago, where Wolf greeted me warmly. He was tall and handsome. His office walls were adorned with framed letters showcasing his service in foreign countries. He had an acoustic guitar on the couch and a cute dog named Muddy romping around.
We talked. He started boasting about his overseas experiences, noting that he'd saved Peace Corps volunteers during a coup in Guinea. He said he was one of the first FBI agents saving lives at the Pentagon on 9/11.
Wolf told me he’d moved to Chicago five years ago from Washington, D.C., to finish his PhD in international psychology. He was sure he was going to win on March 20. The current Fifth District congressman, Democrat Mike Quigley, "is old and doesn’t show up to events,” he said. Another opponent, Sameena Mustafa, "is just a real estate agent.”
I was sold. I'm a cannabis supporter, and it was great seeing a former law enforcement guy embrace it so openly. I especially liked that Wolf spoke of the need not just to legalize it but to destigmatize it. I read quotes from an interview he did with CNN where he said marijuana "allowed him to be gentler, a better father, a better partner . . . and much more empathic." I could relate to that.
I felt like he was someone that could represent my interests in the nation's capital as soon as next year.
But then I started getting Twitter messages telling me to look into Wolf's background.
Roosevelt University deleted his faculty page. "He's never been a professor here," a spokeswoman told me when I called to ask why. "He tutored one student for a little while in 2016, that's it."
I started digging into Wolf's role in the U.S. State Department. He indeed has served in dozens of countries, and he has framed certificates in his office commending him for his service in Guinea and in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. He also toured with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
Other claims were harder to verify. Officials with the State Department declined to comment on whether he had been "appointed a Presidential Envoy" or served as "a United Nations liaison" or "personal staff member to multiple Secretaries of State," as a Wolf campaign press release says.
But a State Department agent who'd served with Wolf in West Africa (and asked not to be named) cast doubt on some of claims made by Wolf on his LinkedIn page. Wolf says he was a "security and human rights attache [who] acted as the lead area expert within ... West Africa providing both information to the ambassador of the United States and the National Security Council."
"There is no such thing as a human rights attache," the agent said. "That role doesn't exist". As to whether Wolf served as a presidential envoy in West Africa, the agent said, "That's crazy."
When I asked Wolf about the claims, he pointed to his commendations from the U.S. government and clarified that he had been a special agent in the Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement arm of the State Department.
As to whether he ever served in the U.S. military, he blamed a campaign staffer for language in a press release saying he was an "Iraq veteran" and was "deployed" there. However, he later told the Tribune that those terms don't only apply to military service.
I was fast falling out of love.
I also researched a tip that Wolf had doxxed a woman to thousands of his social media followers. I went to his office Monday to discuss it with him.
"Get out," he told a cluster of campaign staff when I walked in.
Wolf admitted me he'd posted the home address of a woman who interned for his campaign, but said he had done so "by accident."
The woman had threatened his family, Wolf said, and he "had her arrested"—which was "really hard for him." He said some of his supporters had wanted to testify on his behalf, and that's why he posted the police case numbers to social media, but he had mistakenly posted her address too.
The woman, Katerina Coates, said Wolf's claims against her are false. In a later interview with Politico, she said that Wolf physically and emotionally abused her, once even throwing her to the ground and standing on her chest.
She pointed to other women with similar claims about Wolf's behavior. Many of them declined to speak publicly out of fear of retaliation.
I found out other things he claimed weren't true. He has called himself "a former FBI agent." But FBI Chicago special agent Janine Wheeler told me that there had only been "a non-Special Agent professional support employee at the FBI by that name”—much different than an actual agent.
Wolf was adamant that he was at the Pentagon on 9/11. He offered to put me in touch with his supervisor but never did, and said because there were no cell phone cameras at the time — and he was busy saving lives — he didn't have a picture.
As stories of Wolf's lies exploded in the media Wednesday, my disillusionment was complete.
Contributing: Ilana GordonHunter Stuart is a senior editor at Dose Media, a digital agency and storytelling platform in River North. He lives on the Near North Side.