Under fire over tax credit, Ashley Furniture denies plans to reduce Wisconsin job force

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

(UPDATE: An Ashley Furniture dealer, not the company itself, was sued for alleged anti-gay job discrimination. Also, the Waneks never supported the anti-gay group Family Life, as the previous version of the story stated.)

Ashley Furniture Industries disputes reports that it plans to outsource jobs after receiving a $6-million tax credit from Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

The credit caused a stir because it was granted without a reciprocal guarantee from Ashley to keep jobs in the state — and the company even indicated that it planned to reduce jobs in Wisconsin in the near future.

According to a memo that was first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, in exchange for the tax credit, Ashley Furniture agreed to invest $35 million to expand its Arcadia headquarters and retain 70 percent of its existing 3,848 employee positions in 2014, 60 percent the following year and 50 percent between 2016 and 2018.

But Ashley’s legal counsel Bill Koslo said in a statement that the sliding job guarantee number was not a forecast. Rather, he said, it “just sets the base line of the risk Ashley was willing to accept as a good Samaritan to the City of Arcadia.”

“It is Ashley’s intent to add jobs at all of its locations,” Koslo’s statement added.

Walker and WEDC, his flagship “job creation” agency, came under fire earlier this year for awarding millions of dollars to politically connected companies that then outsourced jobs elsewhere. When that revelation generated negative publicity, the governor said WEDC’s operating rules should be rewritten to ban awards to companies that won’t pledge to keep jobs in the state.

But as chairman of WEDC, Walker joined with nine board members in voting to award Ashley Furniture the $6-million tax credit without such a guarantee.

WEDC has been plagued with bad publicity since it was created by Walker to replace the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. WEDC has suffered from management problems resulting from overt cronyism and the agency lost track of at least $8 million in loans.

According to public records, WEDC has spent $203 million since 2011 but can tie that investment to the creation of only 5,840 jobs.

The reputation of Ashley Furniture also suffered last year due to alleged anti-gay discrimination by one of its licensed dealers, although Ashley Furniture Industries was not involved in the suit.

A Seacaucus, N.J., store licensee was sued in federal court by former employee Isabel Perez for employment discrimination Perez claims she was fired from the store when the local company’s personnel director learned she was a lesbian.

The director allegedly questioned Perez about a Human Rights Campaign equality decal on her car. After learning the meaning of the symbol, the personnel director said God had told her to fire Perez because she did not fit into the company’s culture.

Ronald Wanek, Ashley Furniture’s founder and board chairman, and his wife contributed $10,500 to Walker’s campaign in 2010.  The Waneks also contributed to Democrat Jim Doyle when he was governor.