By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. knows how to have a good time — on the taxpayer’s dime.
The public-private agency led by Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees appeared to have a ball last year at the Ryder Cup at Wisconsin’s famed Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request. WEDC’s deputy secretary offered hard-to-get tickets to clients, partner organizations, big-time Evers donors and family members — part of a $20,000-plus sponsorship package. They racked up a $2,000 bill at the professional golf tournament’s concession stands and enjoyed a pricey dinner at a five-star “Napa-style winery & stylish New American eatery” in Kohler.
While emails show WEDC compliance director Brooklyn Mashaw gave her blessing to at least some of the activities, it sure feels like Wisconsin’s economic development agency gamed the system — particularly to Wisconsinites who could only dream of attending one of golf’s most prestigious events.
In September 2021, the Ryder Cup was one hot ticket.
The biennial men’s golf competition pitting the best golfers in the U.S. and Europe against each other, was sold out. Ground passes for the first day of the three day-tournament were going for $340 on the secondary ticket market, $350 on the second day. The most expensive tickets, with all the perks, were going for as much as $5,300.
But WEDC had lots of tickets. The agency spent $22,000 on a sponsorship package, that eventually helped deliver 96 ground tickets, 16 per day between Tuesday, Sept. 21 and Sunday, Sept. 26, according to a contract.
WEDC Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer Sam Rikkers was clearly excited about attending, as he noted in his Sept 19, 2021 email to colleagues just a few days before the WEDC-led contingent was set to attend.
“I am looking forward to welcoming you all to the Ryder Cup on Wednesday. As this is the first time Whistling Straits is hosting the Ryder Cup, it’s sure to be an exciting time!” Rikkers wrote. “You should have received your tickets via FedEx last week. If you have not yet received them, please let me know. I will create a text group Tuesday evening that includes all of us so we can coordinate throughout the day.”
The email was addressed to seven people, including Dawn Crim, secretary-designee of Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Safety and Professional Services and Tracy Luber, WEDC Regional Economic Development director. Pamela Boivin, executive director and Loan Officer of NiiJii Capital Partners, a not-for-profit chartered by the state that assists entrepreneurs in the Lac du Flambeau, Sokaogon Chippewa (Mole Lake), and the Menominee Reservations was on the exclusive guest list. So was Laurie Reiter, chief financial officer for Menominee Tribal Enterprises.
“What a great day at the Ryder Cup. We make a good team and brought good energy as the American’s dominated the competition and we had meaningful conversations,” Crim wrote in a follow-up email to Rikkers. “I look forward to joining you and (WEDC) CEO Missy (Hughes) in the future.”
Bureaucrats and big donors
Rikkers invited several others to come along, including Evers’ Public Service Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq, who asked that her ticket be sent to her home address. Also on the select invite list, executives from Waukesha-based Generac Power Systems. They couldn’t attend. But Appleton International Airport Director Abe Weber was available.
On Sept. 11, Rikkers extended an offer to Craig Thompson, Evers’ secretary-designee of the Department of Transportation.
“(I)t turns out we have an additional Ryder Cup ticket. Is there a WISDOT colleague or an important stakeholder you would like to invite,” the WEDC executive wrote. Then he aded a sentence justifying the free tickets.
“So long as WEDC can make the argument that the invitee is important to our state and its economy, please let me know if you’d like to invite a guest. Let me know,” Rikkers wrote.
Thompson thought that would be swell.
Also on the invite list was Kevin Conroy, CEO of Madison-based Exact Sciences and generous contributor to Democratic campaigns, including $25,000 to Evers’ campaign coffers. Conroy also is the brother-in-law of Joel Brennan, the governor’s former Department of Administration secretary.
A family affair
Rikkers wanted to let his brothers in on the fun, too. He thought they had earned it. He checked in with WEDC’s Brooklyn Mashaw to see if that was okay.
“My brother Tim Rikkers and his team at Cresa based in Madison has introduced WEDC to a number of potential clients. See attached. Some have turned into actual clients, including a Access Community Health Centers which was awarded a CDI grant earlier this year in SW Wisconsin,” Rikkers wrote in an Aug. 26 email. Cresa is a commercial real estate company that has worked with WEDC.
“As part of our outreach to consultants providing us a pipeline to clients/projects, I am considering inviting the Cresa team to join me for a Ryder Cup practice round but don’t want to violate any ethical laws/rules. Please let me know what you think,” Rikkers added.
Cresa’s leadership team includes Josh Rikkers, managing principal, one of the Brothers Rikkers.
Mashaw responded a day later.
“There is nothing that would prohibit you from taking the Cresa team (including your brother) to the Ryder Cup practice round. Jenny and I agree that this is okay,” she wrote.
According to state ethics law:
Neither a state public official nor a local public official should accept or purchase a ticket or admission to an event or access to a loge, skybox, or other premium area unless the official can clearly and convincingly demonstrate that at least one of these conditions obtains:
- The ticket, admission, or access is offered for a reason unrelated to the official’s holding or having held a public office;
- The ticket, admission, or access is available to the general public on the same terms and conditions as available to the official; or
- The ticket, admission, or access is without pecuniary value.
State Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), a member of the WEDC Board of Directors, was not available for comment Monday.
Ethics questions have dogged WEDC under Evers. As Empower Wisconsin reported earlier this year, a WEDC Board member’s company benefitted from $1 million in WEDC-administered grant funds.
The city of Kenosha received the workforce innovation grant to 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.”
How ‘bout a Stella?
While taking in the Ryder Cup and the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreland course, Rikkers and his party spent a total of $2,062 on lunch, snacks, drinks, and one expensive dinner. There’s a $518.88 receipt (including an $80 tip) from the Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery in Kohler.
The group seemed particularly fond of Stella Artois beer, at $14 bucks a pop. Bills for cheeseburgers, barbecue sandwiches, hotdogs, bratwursts, veggie wraps, cheese curds, chips, Gatorades, Diet Pepsis and a Tito’s Muligan Mary Souvenir Cocktail ($70.40) quickly added up.
WEDC officials had to go back and ask for a tax break.
“I had an individual called the office who said she works for the WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) and said two of their ‘top executives’ came to the event and hosted people here and bought food (presumably from concessions, but she wasn’t 100% sure). She said they are a state government agency and the purchases should have been made tax-exempt but were not and she would like that rectified,” a PGA official wrote in an email, dated Oct. 5, 2021. “She said she has the credit cards, receipts etc. that went along with these purchases and some form that states they are a tax-exempt organization. Wasn’t sure what to tell her, so I took down her name and number.”
Selling Evers and WEDC
WEDC leadership and its marketing department were approached by Golf Media in 2019, according to an email. The firm was producing a Ryder Cup program booklet. That’s how the agency ended up with the difficult-to-get-tickets.
“So, we made an initial investment to place a Letter from the Governor along with a (four-page) color ad in the Official tournament program. This ad speaks to our ‘Team Wisconsin’ partnership with all of our partners statewide,” the email, dated Feb. 26, 2020, noted. “One of the benefits of this ad is that it comes with 24 grounds tickets—so 4 per day Tuesday through Saturday. WEDC decided we will reserve these 4 sets of tickets for use by the Governor’s office, WEDC’s Secretary Missy Hughes, Deputy Secretary Sam Rikkers, and Mary Perry, Business and Investment Attraction Director.”
But 24 tickets wouldn’t be enough.
“Later, we decided as part of our strategy, and acknowledging that we cannot do it all alone, we decided to invest in additional tickets so that we could get these tickets in partners’ hands across the state. RLC members can purchase these additional 72 tickets at our purchase price/face value,” the email states. Other regional economic development agencies, including northeast Wisconsin’s New North Inc. and the Milwaukee 7. They would ultimately snag 96 tickets, according to documents.
“So far, The New North, MadRep and M7 have committed to purchase these tickets and will deploy the tickets to local partners for use in marketing their local assets to site selectors, real estate professionals, and to entertain significant company executives during the Ryder Cup,” the email states.
Did all that wooing with an elite golf experience pay dividends for Wisconsin economic development? Does WEDC have anything to say about tickets going out to family members and Evers administration bigwigs?
A WEDC spokesperson did not return Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment.