Team Evers’ $24,000 Ryder Cup Party
By MD Kittle
MADISON – The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. knows how to have a good time – at taxpayer expense.
The public-private agency run by Governor Tony Evers appointees seemed to have a good time last year at the Ryder Cup at the famous Wisconsin Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request. The WEDC Deputy Secretary offered hard-to-get tickets to customers, partner organizations, major Evers donors and family members – as part of a sponsorship package of over $20,000. They racked up a $2,000 bill at the pro golf tournament booths and enjoyed an expensive dinner at a five-star Napa-style winery and an elegant Nouveau-style American restaurant in Kohler.
While the emails show WEDC compliance director Brooklyn Mashaw gave his blessing to at least some of the activities, it appears the Wisconsin economic development agency played the system — particularly for the Wisconsin residents who could only dream of attending one of golf’s most prestigious events.
In September 2021, the Ryder Cup was a hot ticket.
The biennial men’s golf competition between the best golfers from the United States and Europe was sold out. Ground passes for day one of the three-day tournament went for $340 in the secondary ticket market, $350 on the second day. the most expensive ticketswith all the benefits, cost up to $5,300.
But WEDC had plenty of tickets. The agency spent $22,000 on a sponsorship package, which ultimately helped deliver 96 ground tickets, 16 per day between Tuesday September 21 and Sunday September 26, according to a contract.
WEDC Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer Sam Rikkers was clearly excited to attend, as he noted in his September 19, 2021 email to colleagues just days before the participation of the WEDC-led contingent.
“I look forward to welcoming you all to the Ryder Cup on Wednesday. As this is Whistling Straits’ first time hosting the Ryder Cup, it will certainly be an exciting time! Rikkers wrote. “You should have received your tickets via FedEx by last week. If you haven’t received them yet, please let me know. I’ll create a text group on Tuesday evening that will include all of us so that we can coordinate throughout the day.
The email was addressed to seven people, including Dawn Crim, designated secretary of Evers’ dysfunctional safety and professional services department, and Tracy Luber, WEDC’s director of regional economic development. Pamela Boivin, executive director and loan officer of NiiJii Capital Partners, a state-licensed non-profit organization that assists entrepreneurs in Lac du Flambeau, Sokaogon Chippewa (Mole Lake), and Menominee Reservations was on the exclusive guest list. So does Laurie Reiter, CFO of Menominee Tribal Enterprises.
“What a great day at the Ryder Cup. We are a good team and brought good energy as the Americans 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 join him, including the president of the Evers Public Service Commission Rebecca Valcq, who requested that his ticket be sent to his home address. Also on the selected guest list are executives from Waukesha-based Generac Power Systems. They couldn’t attend. But Appleton International Airport manager Abe Weber was available.
On September 11, Rikkers made an offer to Craig Thompson, Evers’ designated secretary of the Department of Transportation.
“(I)t turns out we have an extra Ryder Cup ticket. Is there any WISDOT colleague or significant stakeholder you would like to invite,” the WEDC executive wrote. added a sentence justifying the free tickets.
“As long as WEDC can make the case that the guest is important to our state and its economy, please let me know if you would like to invite a guest. Let me know,” Rikkers wrote.
Thompson thought it would be great.
Also on the guest list was Kevin Conroy, CEO of Madison-based Exact Sciences and generous contributor to Democratic campaigns, including $25,000 in Evers campaign coffers. Conroy is also the brother-in-law of Joel Brennan, former Secretary of the Governor’s Administration Department.
A family matter
Rikkers also wanted to let his brothers have fun. He thought they deserved it. He checked in with Brooklyn Mashaw of WEDC to see if everything was okay.
“My brother Tim Rikkers and his team at Madison-based Cresa introduced WEDC to a number of potential clients. See attached. Some became actual clients, including an Access Community Health Centers who received a CDI grant more early this year in southwestern 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 efforts with consultants who provide us with a client/project pipeline, I am considering inviting the Cresa team to join me for a practice round at the Ryder Cup, but I don’t want to break any ethical laws/rules. Please let me know what you think,” Rikkers added.
Cresa’s management team includes Josh Rikkers, general manager, one of the Rikkers brothers.
Mashaw responded a day later.
“Nothing would stop you from taking Team Cresa (including your brother) to the practice round of the Ryder Cup. Jenny and I agree it’s okay,” she wrote.
According to the State Ethics Act:
Neither a state public official nor a local public official shall accept or purchase a ticket or admission to an event or access to a box, skybox or other premium area unless the official can demonstrate clearly and convincingly that at least one of these conditions is met:
- The ticket, admission or access is offered for a reason unrelated to the holding or exercise of a public function by the official;
- The ticket, admission or access is available to the general public under the same terms and conditions as those available to the official; or
- The ticket, entry or access is without monetary value.
State Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), a WEDC board member, was unavailable for comment Monday.
Ethical issues plagued WEDC under Evers. As Empower Wisconsin reported earlier this year, the company of a WEDC board member has benefited from $1 million in grant funds administered by WEDC.
The City of Kenosha received the Workforce Innovation Grant to foster entrepreneurship in a community that was badly battered by rioters in August 2020. Kenosha partners with gener8tor, a start-up accelerator Madison/Milwaukee-based company that will provide “coaching, mentoring and networking with startup founders of color and women founders.
gener8tor, was co-founded by Joe Kirgues, a person appointed by Evers to the board of directors of Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. since early 2019.
gener8tor’s involvement in the Kenosha project would appear to be a conflict of interest under the 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 an official linked to this.”
How about a Stella?
While enjoying the Ryder Cup and the beautiful course on the shores of Lake Michigan, Rikkers and his party spent a total of $2,062 on lunch, snacks, drinks and an expensive dinner. There is a receipt for $518.88 (including an $80 tip) from the Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery in Kohler.
The group seemed particularly fond of Stella Artois beer, at $14 a pop. Bills for cheeseburgers, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, bratwurst, veggie wraps, cheese curds, chips, Gatorades, Diet Pepsis and a souvenir Muligan Mary de Tito cocktail ($70.40) quickly accumulated.
WEDC officials had to go back and seek tax relief.
“I had a person called into the office who said they work for WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) and said two of their ‘top executives’ came to the event and greeted people here and bought food (presumably from concessions, but wasn’t 100% sure). She said it was a state government agency and the purchases should have been tax exempt but were not and she would like that rectified,” an official wrote. the PGA in an email dated October 5, 2021. “She said she had the credit cards, receipts, etc. that accompanied these purchases and a form indicating that it is a tax-exempt organization. I wasn’t sure what to say to him, so I jotted down his name and number.
Sell Evers and WEDC
WEDC management and its marketing department were approached by Golf Media in 2019, according to an email. The company produced a Ryder Cup program booklet. As a result, the agency ended up with hard-to-get tickets.
“So we made an upfront investment to place a letter from the Governor along with a (four-page) color advertisement in the official tournament program. This ad talks about 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 tickets for the pitch, ie 4 per day, from Tuesday to Saturday. WEDC has decided to reserve these 4 sets of tickets for the use of the Governor’s Office, WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes, Assistant Secretary Sam Rikkers and Mary Perry, Director of Business and Investment Attraction.
But 24 tickets would not be enough.
“Later we decided as part of our strategy, and recognizing that we can’t do it all alone, we decided to invest in additional tickets so that we could get those tickets into the hands of partners across the world. “State. RLC members can purchase these additional 72 tickets at our purchase price/face value,” the email reads. Other regional economic development agencies, including those in northeastern Wisconsin New North Inc. and the Milwaukee 7. They would eventually grab 96 tickets, according to documents.
“So far, The New North, MadRep and M7 have committed to purchasing these tickets and deploying them to local partners for use in marketing their local assets to site selectors, real estate professionals and to entertain key business executives during The Ryder Cup,” the email read.
Has all this courting with elite golf experience paid dividends for Wisconsin’s economic development? Does WEDC have anything to say about tickets being sent to family members and Evers administration bigwigs?
A WEDC spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Empower Wisconsin.