By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — When Gov. Tony Evers announced he was handing out $60 million in federal COVID relief funds last month to address workforce challenges, he said the money would “help folks get back to work.”
The Democrat didn’t note that nearly $1 million from the program would go to a partnership involving a business owned by a Democratic Party contributor Evers appointed to the Wisconsin Economic Development Board.
Conflict of interest?
It seems like it.
In December, Evers took another opportunity to dip into his unofficial re-election campaign slush fund — the billions of dollars in federal COVID aid almost exclusively at his disposal. The $60 million in grants support 12 regional workforce development projects, and is part of the broader Workforce Innovation Grant program funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The larger grant program is a collaboration between Evers’ Department of Workforce Development (DWD) and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).
Among the recipients is the city of Kenosha, receiving nearly $1 million to help foster entrepreneurship in a community that took a severe beating from rioters in August 2020. Kenosha is partnering with gener8tor, a Madison/Milwaukee-based start-up business accelerator that will provide “coaching, mentorship and networking to start-up founders of color and women founders.”
gener8tor, was co-founded by Joe Kirgues, an Evers’ appointee to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board since early 2019.
gener8tor’s involvement in the Kenosha project would seem to be a conflict of interest under state ethics laws.
“It’s a perception problem for sure,” a legislative aide who frequently deals with economic development issues told Empower Wisconsin. “He’s a public official tied into this.”
It’s not clear whether Kirgues had any role in the grant selection process. A WEDC official did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment. Kirgues did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
The grant program is available to nonprofit or governmental entities “to help implement collaborative, innovative plans to tackle a specific region’s most pressing workforce challenge,” according to a previous press release. The grants are administered through an interagency effort between the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Department of Workforce Development (DWD).
While the city of Kenosha is a governmental entity, its partner in the grant project is a nationally ranked player in the field of start-up acceleration. It is a very profitable company, deriving revenue from equity in the businesses gener8tor helps incubate.
Will the company take a piece of the proceeds from the start-ups it mentors under the taxpayer-funded grant program?
According to BizTimes, the grant funding will cover the costs of running the gener8tor’s gBETA program for three years. The program is a “seven-week accelerator that works with local, early-stage startups so they can gain early customer traction for their product or idea,” the publication reported. “The program also helps startups establish metrics to become competitive applicants for full-time, equity-based accelerators or seed investment. There will be two gBETA programs running each year for three years.”
The grant also will fund a full-time director to run the local program.
Kirgues has been a relatively minor contributor to Democratic Party politics, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign database. The entrepreneur has contributed $3,200 total to Democrats and state Democratic legislative committees over the past decade, including a $100 contribution to former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Before Evers tapped him for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board, Kirgues told the Milwaukee Business Journal that he hoped the business community would keep an open mind about Evers, who at the time was just beginning his term as governor. Kirgues said Evers would seek bipartisan solutions to, for example, address workforce challenges and boost the state’s start-up business culture.
“I’m excited about his convening power,” Kirgues told the publication.