Five times now, Claim Check has evaluated assertions about Tom Foley’s involvement with the Bibb Co. textile firm in Georgia. And five times now, we’ve found that one side or the other didn’t get the story exactly right — though usually without veering so far from the truth as to earn an unfavorable rating.
That is the case once again, as Claim Check takes its sixth look at the Bibb, via an ad from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s campaign titled “Ghost Town.”
The spot is dominated by quick video clips of former mill workers criticizing Foley’s management of the company, and particularly the textile plant in Bibb City, Ga.
Chuck Redden says on camera that when Foley purchased the plant, “he just run it into the ground.”
Mary Filligim adds: “He started laying people off.”
“No severance pay, no insurance, no nothing,” says Jeri Broadwell.
Totsy Harris notes that “all at once,” the plant closed.
“And now,” says Redden, “it’s just like a ghost town.”
It is, in a quarter-minute, a profoundly unflattering portrait of Foley’s control of the Bibb Co. But in compressing a decade into 15 seconds, the timeline of the Bibb’s demise gets lost, and the ad could leave viewers with the incorrect impression that the plant’s shuttering came soon after Foley took control of the company.
So as we have done before, here’s a fuller explanation of the collapse of the Bibb:
In its heyday, one of the Bibb Co.’s jewels was a 1,000-foot-long factory on the Chattahoochee River separating Columbus, Ga. from Phenix City, Ala. The company built houses and schools for its workers, and in 1909, Bibb City, Ga., was incorporated as a distinct municipality.
In 1985, Foley, at the time the 33-year-old founder of a private investment firm, borrowed heavily to buy the Bibb Co., and three years later, he borrowed even more to buy eight mills from the failed J.P. Stevens company.
At first sales and revenue grew. But as the mid-1990s approached, the Bibb began to falter. In the summer of 1994, Foley stepped in and took over day-to-day control. Less than a year later, however, the highly leveraged company missed a $9 million interest payment to bondholders, as downturns in the business and the broader textile industry ate away at profits.
In mid-1996, Foley struck a deal with creditors that required him to step down as CEO, give up nearly all of his equity in the business and put the Bibb into a prepackaged bankruptcy.
New owners took over the Bibb Co. — and two years later, they shuttered the Bibb City plant, putting hundreds out of work.
The Malloy and Foley camps naturally disagree over the degree of Foley’s responsibility for the company’s decline, and to the extent the workers in the Malloy ad point an accusatory finger at Foley, those assertions defy traditional fact-checking.
And while the fast pace of the ad could lead viewers to wrongly conclude that the company collapsed soon after Foley’s arrival, the ad doesn’t specifically make that claim.
Likewise, the ad could be interpreted as suggesting that Foley controlled the Bibb City plant at the time it was shut down, which he didn’t. But the ad also doesn’t explicitly make that charge, and the former workers are free to hold the opinion that Foley still shoulders the blame for the plant’s eventual closing.
The assertion that Bibb City now is “just like a ghost town,” while also subjective, is somewhat more troubling. There is no formal definition of a ghost town, but viewers might conclude that the businesses and areas around the town have been wholly abandoned. That is not the case. The Malloy campaign provided press clippings to support the “ghost town” language, but nearly all were from December 2000 and focused on a wrenching vote by Bibb City leaders to give up the city’s charter and be subsumed into Columbus, Ga. While the area is not the bustling company town it once was and property values are undeniably low, the businesses and homes in what was Bibb City are occupied, and the mill itself — which burned nearly to the ground in 2008 — is now the site of the Rivermill Event Center, a pricey wedding venue with plans for a boutique hotel.
Still, “ghost town” is a loose enough term that it is difficult to declare Redden’s choice of that description as factually incorrect.
The most specific assertion related to the experience of Bibb workers comes from Broadwell’s line: “No severance, no insurance, no nothing.” Broadwell, who is now in her early 80s, confirmed through her daughter that the clip accurately conveyed her sentiments and that she received no severance pay or other company-provided benefits when she was laid off in the mid-1980s after more than three decades at the Bibb City plant. She said she might personally have been covered under her husband’s health-insurance plan, but said she knows of other employees whose company-paid health insurance was cut off.
In response to the ad, the Foley campaign says it lacks the records to evaluate Broadwell’s specific circumstances, but they do not refute the assertion that laid-off Bibb workers received no severance or other company-provided benefits. They do note that employees would have been entitled to their earned pensions and to mandated programs including unemployment insurance and the option of paying for COBRA health insurance.
Broadwell has said in the past that she does receive a pension of about $39 a month, a figure her daughter confirmed. And there is no indication laid-off workers were somehow denied unemployment insurance or other federally mandated rights. But a reasonable reading of Broadwell’s quote supports her contention that she was referring to the absence of money or other benefits provided directly by the Bibb Co. in consideration of those who were losing their jobs.
The Bibb Co.’s history is complicated and not likely to get a clear airing in a 30-second partisan commercial. But this spot from Malloy steers clear of factual errors, relying mostly on personal opinions that may be disputed, but cannot be proved or disproved. And while the timeframe of the Bibb’s demise may be confusing, the basic foundation of the ad — that Foley was in charge as the company declined — is true. As such, we rate this ad Generally Accurate.