The state’s top economic development agency, stung by a series of scathing audits, media reports about questionable loans and accusations of mismanagement, is once again seeking new leadership.
After three years steering Gov. Scott Walker’s flagship job-creation agency through troubled waters, Reed Hall announced Tuesday he is retiring as Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO on Sept. 25.
In a statement, Hall thanked Walker, the WEDC board, other Cabinet secretaries and agency staff in saying “it is time for me to return to my previous retired status.”
“Together we have increased transparency and accountability of WEDC’s operations,” Hall said. “We have put in place checks and balances, enhanced financial tracking, and expanded the information that we provide to the WEDC Board, the Wisconsin Legislature and the public.”
Hall, a former CEO of the Marshfield Clinic who turned 67 last week, became the quasi-public agency’s second top executive after Paul Jadin left to take a job with the Madison Region Economic Partnership in November 2012.
At the time, the agency faced scrutiny for not properly tracking past-due loans and mishandling federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
The State Journal recently reported how the agency suffered early on from hasty decision-making and political pressure from the Walker administration to help fulfill the governor’s ultimately unsuccessful pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term.
Initially, Hall was hired on an interim basis while a national search was conducted for Jadin’s replacement. Democrats criticized Walker for choosing Hall over three other finalists with private sector experience, but the move won praise from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce president Kurt Bauer, who called Hall “a proven innovator in business.”
“I think great days are ahead,” Hall told reporters at the time.
Soon after, a nonpartisan legislative audit of the agency’s first year found it routinely failed to follow state laws and internal policies, awarded money to ineligible projects and made a number of questionable and unexplained purchases with agency credit cards.
Earlier this year a follow-up audit covering Hall’s first year found the agency made many improvements but wasn’t following state laws and internal policies for tracking whether companies were creating promised jobs. Hall vigorously objected to the findings, saying “it is imperative that WEDC continue to have the flexibility needed to respond quickly to the needs of Wisconsin’s business community.”
In response, Walker scrapped a proposed merger of WEDC with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and later called for an end to the agency’s loan program, which will be phased out over the next two years. At Walker’s request, the Legislature removed the governor as chairman of the WEDC board.
The call to end the loan program came days before the State Journal reported the agency had given a $500,000 unsecured loan to a struggling Milwaukee construction company owned by a top donor to Walker’s campaign. Though Jadin signed off on the initial loan, which hadn’t been properly reviewed by WEDC staff, he rebuffed attempts by the Walker administration to give more money to Building Committee Inc.
After Hall became CEO, the agency continued trying to help BCI secure federal bonds, despite learning from a luxury car-leasing company that owner William Minahan planned to use the money to repay more than $200,000 in debt.
An internal agency investigation released in June found the loan to BCI was one of 28 awards totaling $126 million between July 2011 and June 2013 that didn’t receive a formal review. The agency has since updated its policies to ensure such staff reviews are conducted.
In light of those revelations, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, a WEDC board member, called for Hall’s resignation.
On Tuesday, Barca said in a statement that he appreciated Hall’s public service but said his tenure was “marred by management failures and a failure to protect Wisconsin taxpayers, which was in part due to his inexperience in the economic development field.”
“I hope that WEDC’s nonchalant attitude toward following the law ends with Reed Hall’s resignation, but our efforts to reform WEDC won’t end there,” Barca said. “WEDC needs not only a major leadership change but also significant structural changes to better serve the workers, entrepreneurs and businesses of Wisconsin.”
WEDC has declined multiple requests to make Hall available for an interview.
Walker said in a statement he will work with Dan Ariens, who replaced Walker as WEDC board chairman, and the WEDC board to determine the best candidate to nominate as a replacement. The WEDC CEO is appointed by the governorand approved by the Senate.
“Reed has overseen a transformational period at WEDC with a steady hand,” Walker said. “Under Reed’s guidance, WEDC strengthened its accountability and transparency to taxpayers, improving the public trust, while moving forward the important work of developing economic opportunity for families all around our state.”