CHICAGO — Benjamin Thomas Wolf, an Illinois congressional candidate whose provocative campaign has captured national media attention, has smoked weed in front of an American flag, brandished an AR-15 in a campaign ad and is running ads on porn sites.
But his turn in the spotlight — the former FBI employee has been featured in write-ups in Newsweek, CNN and appeared in an interview on Fox & Friends — has unearthed a troubled past, including accusations of abusive behavior toward women and claims that he inflated his resume.
The allegations against Wolf, the so-called “cannabis candidate” who is running in a crowded Democratic primary against Chicago-based Rep. Mike Quigley, come amid a national moment of reckoning on sexual harassment and domestic abuse, and on the heels of a scandal involving Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence by two ex-wives.
Katarina Coates, a former girlfriend who interned for his campaign, told POLITICO that Wolf was frequently physically and emotionally abusive, and “doxxed” her by revealing her name and home address on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“He actually hit me, threw me to the ground, put his foot on my chest. He was really angry. He grabbed my face,” said Coates, who described at least six incidents of physical abuse. “I thought it was normal. I cannot explain the logic. It seemed like he cared about me when he did that. After that time he stood on my chest, he went and took me for chocolate cake. I kind of associated it with his caring…There were times I would ask him: ‘do you ever regret hitting me?’ He would say: "No, but I'm relieved when you put your head down so I don't have to do it again."
Coates said she did not file a police report documenting the allegations of abuse. Instead, she said, Wolf filed police reports against her.
But Coates did reach out over a period of three months in 2017 to several institutions where she made her allegations of relationship violence, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO. Coates was in contact with Title IX officers at both DePaul University, where she was a student, and Roosevelt University, where Wolf has said he was an adjunct professor and where Coates filed a formal Title IX complaint.
Title IX refers to the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program, and is designed to protect students against domestic violence and sexual assault.
In one instance, Coates directly complained to DePaul campus security that she was fearful of him. In a separate instance, in April 2017, she corresponded over email with a security officer who reassured her that Wolf, who was not a student there, had actually been banned from the campus.
“Ben is not allowed in campus. He does know that as I told him that personally,” Michael Dohm, deputy director of public safety at DePaul, wrote in an email provided to POLITICO by Coates as proof of the exchange.
Wolf had been banned from the campus after a separate complaint by philosophy professor Jason Hill, who told POLITICO that he personally filed a report with campus security after a different student had come to him crying about having an upsetting incident with Wolf.
Hill, who had met Wolf outside of DePaul and at one time discussed collaborating on a book with him, said over time Wolf’s behavior became threatening to him as well.
“To even have to comment on Benjamin Wolf is upsetting to me. I spent two years trying to get over having anything to do with him,” Hill said.
According to Hill, when Wolf learned of the campus security complaints he grew angry and sent him menacing emails.
“He wrote a lot of nasty letters to me encouraging me to kill myself. He said: ‘you should just commit suicide,’” Hill said.
DePaul University declined to comment on the matter.
Kari Fitzgerald, who dated Wolf about four years ago, said he was not violent with her but had a volatile personality.
"When he thinks he's been wronged or threatened in any way he lashes out ... It's definitely a situation where he's escalating. There's abusive, escalating behavior he's demonstrating," she said.
Fitzgerald said she decided to go public with her own previous experience with Wolf after she became aware of the doxxing incident through social media.
"I wanted to validate her. And say: 'this is a bad guy and I believe her because this is what he did to me,'" Fitzgerald said of Coates’ experience.
In a phone interview with POLITICO, Wolf adamantly denied any claims of abuse, saying that it was Coates who had harassed him to the point that he had to file police reports against her to protect his family. He apologized for revealing her personal information and noted that he pulled it off social media.
When pressed on whether he asked Hill to kill himself, Wolf said: “Honestly, I have no idea. No. I sincerely hope not.”
He dismisses the accusations as politically motivated, and a result of his recent emergence on the national scene.
“I walk around this city with a black leather jacket and leather boots and this city is scared of me,” Wolf said. “We are talking about sex and drugs, we have no corporate donors.”
Tough scrutiny of Wolf’s background, however, began before his campaign attracted national notice. In spring 2017, Women's March Chicago blocked Wolf from its Facebook group after numerous women complained to organizers, said Emily Kraiem, who is on the group’s board of directors.
"Once he started posting, a lot of people started contacting me as the admin of the page," Kraiem told POLITICO.
"He has a bad history with women, his background doesn't add up,” she said, describing the women’s complaints. “Based on all the different things that we were hearing and the way he jumped into the fray and was conducting himself, we removed him out of our Facebook group."
In January, a Florida Democratic group that endorsed him rescinded the backing the same day, saying they had received troubling information about him.
“Florida Democrats for 2018,” which supports congressional candidates, had initially announced on Facebook they were endorsing Wolf for Congress, leading him to thank all the Illinois "snowbirds in Florida," adding that "they all must know Grandma Wolf."
Later that day, however, the group said it was pulling its endorsement.
"Due to some controversy and new information being brought to our attention, we have decided to withdraw our endorsement of Benjamin T Wolf for IL-05 CD at this time until we can conduct a more thorough investigation," it wrote in a Facebook post.
The group did not respond to POLITICO’s inquiries about the rescinded endorsement.
Within the district, Wolf has been targeted by several Twitter accounts — including one entitled "Wolf Detective" — that are devoted to fact-checking his background.
They’ve raised questions about details of his resume, including his claims to having served in Iraq.
When he first announced his candidacy, Wolf described himself as an "Iraq veteran." And on Veterans Day, he responded to a tweet from Quigley saying: "Wolf served multiple terms in Africa and Iraq. Wolf for Congress."
But Wolf has never served in the military.
He said he hasn’t misrepresented his credentials, and that people misunderstood him.
"People in the military get upset when I say I served in Iraq. The military doesn't have a patent on the word 'served,'” said Wolf, who said he worked with the State Department as a special agent and a career tenured member of the Foreign Service.
"I've been an amazing person in American history," says Wolf, who tells the story of being among the first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at the Pentagon, and of once being exposed to weaponized anthrax.
In the ad that first gained him national attention, Wolf is shown holding an AR-15, saying it is not suitable for civilians.
"In the ad, it's in my living room. That's my living room, that's my AR-15," he told POLITICO. "It's the same model; basically the same model I carried in Iraq. ... I thought we needed to send a strong message to people, I am an expert in this weapon, I've been trained on this weapons for years. There is no place for these weapons in modern American society."
That particular weapon is banned in the city of Chicago.
Robin Dusek, an attorney who attempts to fact-check Wolf on her Twitter account, said she grew suspicious of Wolf last year after she asked him a question online about his background and he blocked her on Facebook. Dusek -- who says she has no affiliation with Quigley other than being a constituent — said she challenged Wolf on several claims and he responded by blocking her on Twitter.
As a result, she began researching more about him and soon connected with various women whom she says described unpleasant histories with Wolf.
"I actually reached out to women who I saw make comments on social media and privately messaged them and said 'hey, I'm just a normal person looking into him. I found out what I found out," Dusek said. "He's like a super villain."
Asked about the hostile Twitter accounts and his banishment from the Women’s March Facebook page, Wolf said he wasn't aware of being banned. But, he said, "We love it. We love all the attention."