By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. bigwigs handed out taxpayer-funded tickets to last year’s Ryder Cup to politically connected pals like Halloween candy. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a legislative member of the WEDC Board of Directors, has a message for freebie receivers: Pay it pack.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported this week, WEDC’s deputy secretary offered hard-to-get tickets to clients, partner organizations, big-time donors to Gov. Tony Evers, even to family members — part of a $20,000-plus sponsorship package and then some. Event-goers racked up at least 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, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin through the state’s open records law.
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.
“This isn’t surprising since Governor Evers is used to handing out checks funded by other people’s money,” Vos (R-Rochester) said in an email to Empower Wisconsin. “I’m calling on those who received the free tickets to repay the face value.”
The biennial men’s golf tournament, held last September at Wisconsin’s famed Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, was a hot ticket.
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 for the agency’s use, 16 per day between Tuesday, Sept. 21 and Sunday, Sept. 26, according to a contract.
The public-private WEDC ended up forking over a lot more money as its appetite for Ryder Cup tickets grew.
WEDC Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer Sam Rikkers, according to emails, invited a host of who’s who in the Evers administration, in Wisconsin business circles — and in his own family. The invite list included: Dawn Crim, secretary-designee of Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Safety and Professional Services; Public Service Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq, and Craig Thompson, 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,” Rikkers wrote in a Sept. 11 email to Thompson. 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.
WEDC’s second in command also invited 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.
Rikkers expanded the family affair, inviting his two brothers and members of their Madison real estate business team to come along, according to emails.
WEDC has not returned Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment.
The agency has engaged in some ethically questionable conduct on the taxpayer’s dime over the past year. 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.”
When Vos joined the WEDC Board in January 2021, he expressed concerns about the direction of the agency.
“I also worry that our economic development strategy has been haphazard and not necessarily all that well coordinated,” the speaker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time.
“I strongly supported getting rid of the old Department of Commerce and creating a new and more nimble economic development agency, that’s what WEDC is, and I want to make sure it stays that way and does not become a political operation with different values than we had when the bill was originally passed.”