Angie’s List CEO: Controversial bill ‘sends a clear message’

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Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle, a Republican who gave at least $150,000 to help elect Gov. Mike Pence, on Saturday said Pence and Republican state lawmakers left him no choice but to call off his company's $40 million Indianapolis headquarters expansion.

The state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Pence signed into law Thursday, creates an atmosphere that will make it more difficult to recruit top talent to Indiana and meet job-creation promises, Oesterle told reporters at the firm's offices on the east side.

"We have a number of employees who represent underrepresented groups," Oesterle said. "This bill sends a clear message to them that Indiana is not particularly welcoming."

Angie's List was seeking $18.5 million in bond money from the city to support the expansion, which it said would nearly double the Angie's List workforce to about 2,800 people by the end of 2019. Before Angie's List decided to cancel its expansion plans, the company had expected to break ground on the project "within days" with a final hearing scheduled for Monday in front of the Indianapolis City-County Council.

Oesterle described the legislation, Senate Bill 101, as "unnecessary" to create jobs, educate children or attract people to the state. He said he was "sorry" for the promises he had made about Indiana's welcoming climate to gay and lesbian Angie's List employees, including a top executive who relocated to Indiana with his partner.

"Now, very naturally, they wonder what kind of state they've come to," Oesterle said.

Angie's List did not take a position on the bill until after it passed the General Assembly and was signed by Pence.

Oesterle described the bill signing as a "crystallizing event" for him. The event was closed to the press and public, and Pence was flanked by religious lobbyists including Micah Clark and Eric Miller, outspoken opponents of gay marriage.

"The manner of passage was disturbing," Oesterle said.

Groups supporting the measure say it will prevent the government from compelling people to provide services such as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable for religious reasons. Opponents say the law provides legal cover for discrimination against gay people.

Pence has said media coverage has blown the law's potential impact out of proportion, a position Oesterle described as a "miscalculation."

"I believe there are significant problems with the bill," he said. "I'm not here because of the media. I understand what this bill is."

Oesterle said Pence has not called him to discuss the legislation. He also said he hasn't spoken with former Gov. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University. Oesterle was campaign manager for Daniels' first run for governor.

"I'm very proud to be a Republican," Oesterle said. "I'm concerned about the direction the General Assembly and the governor have chosen to go here."

Oesterle said he "felt very good" that the company's incentive deal with the city of Indianapolis would have won approval had the company not pulled the plug. He said the company will begin reviewing alternatives for the expansion of its headquarters, which will likely remain in Indianapolis.

Council President Maggie Lewis, a Democrat, reacted to the Angie's List announcement Saturday evening, calling the move "disheartening."

In a statement, she said she will be offering her support Monday for a proposal "that rejects the RFRA and lets the world know what a wonderful, welcoming city Indy truly is."

Republican Mayor Greg Ballard also has publicly criticized the bill, and on Saturday the Republican candidate to replace him, Chuck Brewer, acknowledged the legislation creates "a major perception problem" for Indianapolis.

"I believe the Indiana legislature should consider taking additional action to provide assurances against discrimination," Brewer said in a statement.

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