Jorge Franco, leader of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin since 2013, has promised to chart a bigger and bolder course for the once highly regarded nonprofit. To carry out his vision for an organization more focused on workforce development and preparing Hispanics for employment opportunities, he’s ballooned the group’s staff to 50 full- and part-time employees in five Wisconsin cities. But a July story in this magazine first revealed ongoing turmoil at the chamber, including troubles with financial reporting. Since then, major setbacks – a damning state audit, and a lost city grant – have others in Milwaukee’s Hispanic business community describing his leadership style as long on promises but short on results.
Earlier this year, the city of Milwaukee withheld $75,000 in annual Community Development Block Grant funding from the chamber, money largely intended for economic development. According to city officials, the chamber lost the grant because it failed to submit audited financial statements, a basic reporting requirement.
The chamber also was forced to repay about $42,000 to Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton after an audit by the state Department of Workforce Development found it had used the funds to pay for a similar program elsewhere, at North Central Technical College in Wausau.
The tech college mix-up was all part of a broader state grant worth $300,000, a workforce development initiative to train new welders in the state at technical colleges in Appleton, Wausau and Green Bay. The audit, which has brought an added level of scrutiny to the low-profile organization, found it didn’t have an effective system for tracking how the grant money was spent. Outcomes didn’t measure up, either: Just 82 welders got trained, out of a hoped-for 97, and only 61 wound up in welding or related jobs. In the end, only 11 went to work for one of the 20 employers who signed on as partners of the program.
Internally, the chamber has become a revolving door, with high staff turnover, according to insiders, and some former employees say it was Franco’s leadership that weakened their morale. The troubles have even affected paychecks: Most staffers went without them for about two months stretching from April to June, although the shortages were later made up. One former employee, Jose Araujo, of Sheboygan, has filed a claim with the state Department of Workforce Development for not receiving the promised 4 percent contribution to a 401K account.
John Vidal, a longtime board member, says he quit the chamber over Franco’s inconsistencies. “He likes to drop names and suggest grandiose things are coming,” Vidal says, “and nothing happens.”
Vidal has provided security and printing services to the chamber and says the organization owed him some $2,500 for about two years. “It was not so much the money, but my calls and emails for payment were ignored. It was a matter of respect.”
The invoices were finally paid in 2015 after Vidal called the board’s vice chair, Thomas Mason, to complain. When Vidal let his membership to the chamber lapse, no one called to inquire, he says.
When contacted, Franco declined to comment on the current state of the agency. He took over from long-time chamber leader Maria Monreal-Cameron, who had built up the chamber into a respected agency in her 24 years leading it. A Chicago native, Franco’s professional history in Milwaukee includes a financial services company, National Financial Corporation, that he owned and a check-cashing outfit he partly owned in the 1990s. He also chaired the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2005, which could explain his high confidence going into the Wisconsin job.
Franco wears several hats at the chamber, serving as chairman of the board, president and CEO, an arrangement that Douglas Ihrke, executive director of the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has said could lead to a “lack of oversight.”
“It’s a conflict of interest,” says Vidal. “There are no checks and balances.” ◆