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If you can’t trust a candidate’s own official campaign biography, just what can you trust?
That’s a question that popped up as we tried to determine the accuracy of a television ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacking Reid Ribble, the Republican challenging two-term U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Appleton).
No, Ribble is not one of those wannabes who claimed he was a decorated war hero when the closest he came to action was watching a Rambo movie. This is more mundane -- until recently, Ribble’s bio posted on his own campaign website said he owned a roofing company.
That ownership claim helped give the DCCC -- whose aim is to win or hold seats for Democrats -- an opening to air an attack ad portraying Ribble as a hypocrite on stimulus money.
The 8th Congressional District, which includes Green Bay and the Fox Valley, has long been considered a swing seat. Both sides have targeted it this year. And with jobs on the mind of voters, it’s little surprise Democrats would tag Ribble as looking out for himself instead of others.
The ad starts with newsreel-style black and white footage, with an announcer loudly proclaiming, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Politician says one thing, does another!" It goes on to say Ribble has criticized the stimulus plan, which Kagen supported, saying it failed to "jumpstart" the economy, but his "roofing company made almost $300,000 off stimulus funded projects."
That was just the first of the finger pointing: The Ribble campaign responded by calling the Democrats liars, saying the candidate sold the family business in December 2009 and, besides, the jobs in question weren’t worth anywhere near $300,000.
Charges of lies and hypocrisy. That’s our cue.
Let’s try to sort this all out.
It should be an easy job -- either Ribble’s roofing company got the contracts or it didn’t; either he owned it at the time or it had been sold. But, as reporters and roofers know, looks can be deceiving. Sometimes you just have to look under a couple of shingles to see what’s what.
For its backup, spokeswoman Gabby Adler said the DCCC found references to Reid Ribble owning the company on his campaign website and the roofing company’s website. Though not mentioned in the ad, the Democrats are citing a contract awarded by the Kaukauna School District to Security Roofing -- a division of The Ribble Group -- to renovate the roof of Haen Elementary School. The contract was awarded in October 2009, but the work was done in 2010.
Let’s start with the ownership question.
Brandon Moody, Ribble campaign manager, said The Ribble Group was sold to Ribble’s nephew, Troy Ribble, in December 2009. Ribble, Moody said, had no ownership stake when the project was done and the company was paid.
"It’s a timeline issue and it’s a lie," Moody said.
Then we peeked under the shingle.
We found it’s the Ribble campaign that has a timeline problem.
The roofing job was awarded by the school district in October 2009, said Robert Schafer, district financial officer for the Kaukauna schools. That’s before the company was sold. Not only that, Schafer said, when the bids were sought, Reid Ribble was the contact person for the company. Troy Ribble, confirmed his uncle handled the bid for the project.
In our search, we came across paperwork filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission in February 2010 that lists Reid Ribble as chairman of the company. They had done some work in Virginia earlier this year.
"He is the chairman of the board of directors," Troy Ribble told PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Troy said his uncle, however, does not own stock in the 52-year-old company and is not involved as an executive in day-to-day operations. Reid Ribble remains a consultant, Troy said. The acquisition makes him the third generation of Ribbles to own the firm.
What’s more, on Oct. 13, 2010 -- some 10 months after Ribble said he sold the company -- we found his campaign website read: "Reid owns and operates one of the most successful roof construction and consulting companies in the United States." Ribble’s Facebook page is even clearer: It lists him as the president of the Ribble Group Inc.
Even the company site still listed him as president until at least early October. Like the campaign site, that website has since been changed.
For his part, Moody referred to the out-of-date campaign website as "minutia."
But for a first-time candidate, one promising to bring his business acumen to Washington, that life story -- and how it’s presented to the public -- strikes us as important.
Meanwhile, we asked repeatedly for documentation that the firm had been sold, but the campaign did not provide it. The campaign sent us a copy of a June 14, 2010, letter from attorney Roy Fine to Troy Ribble that refers to the sale of the company.
The letter asks Troy to sign "Resolutions by you as the sole remaining shareholder dated effective Dec. 10," as well as forms for the redemption of Reid Ribble’s stock and his employment agreement.
So, regardless of whether the company was sold, Reid Ribble still has strong ties to the company. He is chairman, receives a monthly consulting fee and was active when the company bid on the school district work.
Now let’s look into the $300,000 figure the Democrats use as the price tag.
To back up the claim, Adler produced a letter from the school district to the state Department of Public Instruction outlining $1 million worth of projects that it hoped to finance with the no-interest bonds issued as a result of the stimulus. The list included $700,000 worth of roofing projects.
But asking is different than receiving.
Only $500,000 worth of bonding authority was granted, said Natalie Rew, auditor for the state Department of Public Instruction. Of that, only about $133,000 was paid to The Ribble Group, Schafer said, noting the remainder went to other projects. (The Ribble Group has done other large projects for the district, work not funded with stimulus dollars.)
That’s a long way from making "almost $300,000 off stimulus funded projects."
That’s laying the shingles on a little thick.
So, what do we know?
Ribble says he sold his company in December 2009, but has not shown us a definitive document to prove it, instead offering a "trust me" response. That’s hard to do when the campaign’s own website, which the Democrats relied on in making their claim, until recently, touted Ribble’s ownership. Besides, Ribble remains involved as chairman.
As for the project itself, the school district said the job was awarded while Reid Ribble was in charge, even if the work was done later. But the $300,000 figure the Democrats cite is also off, way off -- the actual amount received was about $133,000.
With the sloppiness on both sides, here’s the cleanest we can call it: Half True.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, TV ad, "Ribble likes cashing our checks," Oct. 8, 2010
E-mails, Robert Schafer, financial officer, Kaukauna Area School District, Oct. 15 and 19, 2010
Letter from Kaukauna Area School District Administrator Lloyd McCabe to Natalie Rew, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Auditor, May 27, 2009
Interviews with Brandon Moody, campaign manager Ribble for Congress. Oct. 14 and 15, 2010
Statement, Ribble for Congress, "DCCC ‘Cash Checks’ Another Desperate, Misleading Ad Against Reid Ribble, undated
Interview with Troy Ribble, Oct. 19, 2010
Interviews with Gabby Adler, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Oct. 15, 18 and 19, 2010
Commonwealth of Virginia State Corporation Commission, online registration records
Website, Ribble for Congress, website: About Reid Ribble
Also viewed cached versions of Ribble for Congress web site
Website, The Ribble Group
Also viewed cached version of Ribble Group web pages
Reid Ribble’s Facebook page
Letter from attorney Roy N. Fine to Troy Ribble, "Re: The Ribble Group/Reid Ribble Stock Redemption/Update of Corporate Record Book," June 14, 2010
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