The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has been plagued by scandals since it was created to replace the state Commerce Department by Gov. Scott Walker as a public-private entity in 2011. The agency’s lack of transparency spelled trouble from the beginning.
The following years were marked by one problem after another: Federal officials found WEDC was not following federal law or its own policies on administering grants. Millions of dollars in loan money was misplaced, forgotten or lost. Agency credit cards were misused. Questionable purchases by employees included season football tickets. And tax credits were doled out without any requirement that recipients actually create the jobs the grants were meant to stimulate. .
One embattled WEDC head after another quit, and new heads were picked by Walker. Meanwhile a series of legislative audits showed continued and new problems, including the most recent one last month.
Melissa “Missy” Hughes will take over the troubled agency with it’s messy, eight-year record — although it has been improving.” Gov. Tony Evers announced Hughes as his choice for CEO of WEDC on Thursday and her first day on the job will be Oct. 1. One of the laws passed by Republicans in the Legislature during last year’s lame-duck session was a measure forbidding Evers from picking his own agency head until after Sept. 1.
Hughes comes to the job just days after the company where she serves as Chief Mission Officer and general counsel—Organic Valley/CROPP cooperative in La Farge, Wis.—announced it has become the largest food company in the world to get 100% of its energy from renewables. She’s been with the company since 2003.
It’s a cooperative made up of 2,000 farms and more than 900 employees that started with just seven family farms back in 1988 according to its website, although it has recently laid off 39 employees as a part of restructuring.
Hughes publicly answered for the layoffs, saying “…this difficult decision was made solely to ensure that we meet our commitment to give as many organic family farms as possible a viable financial future. We will continue to give consumers more organic food choices that they can trust were produced with the highest standards of animal care and farming practices.”
She also maintained a national profile as an advocate for organic food as past president and current vice-president of the Organic Trade Association’s Board of Directors and the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture.
In early July, Hughes penned a blog post for Independence Day in which she shared her thoughts about farming, organic food and being an independent cooperative “beholden only to you and our farmers, not to the whims of Wall Street.”
“I look forward to working with her as we connect the dots on economic development in a way that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation while supporting farmers, manufacturers, and the Main Street businesses, start-ups, and large-scale companies that help our communities grow,” Evers said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) praised the hire: “As someone with a connection to the Coulee Region, I have enjoyed working with Ms. Hughes through her work at Organic Valley. Ms. Hughes has extensive knowledge in business, leadership and management and her experience will be a valuable asset for the state of Wisconsin. I look forward to working with Ms. Hughes to expand economic opportunities, support Main Street community businesses and encourage innovative entrepreneurship in Wisconsin.”
In Evers’ news release, Hughes commented, “Having worked in a high growth business for many years, with the goal of helping farmers stay on their farms now and for the coming generations, I am excited to bring my experience to the Evers Administration, and I look forward to helping all of Wisconsin thrive.”