By PAUL T. FARRELL JR.
CHARLESTON -- GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney recently told West Virginia voters that the Stella-Jones Corp. closed its Ripley plant in 2010 because a Jackson County jury awarded a former employee wages in an age discrimination lawsuit.
This so-called "horror" story is the reason Maloney wants to change our West Virginia courts. Maloney's "horror" story is simply not true.
The Stella-Jones Corp. didn't close its Ripley facility. It relocated to Pittsburgh after it bought the Pittsburgh-based Tangent Rail Corp. for $165 million. A senior vice president for Stella-Jones told The State Journal: "Tangent had corporate offices in Pittsburgh, and we had the office in Ripley from Burke Parsons Bowlby. We can't afford to have two head offices, so we will be moving to a new location in Pittsburgh."
Nonetheless, Maloney said Stella-Jones decided to shut down the Ripley plant "rather than fight the decision." This statement is also untrue. Stella-Jones filed an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court which is still pending. Five justices, elected by West Virginia voters, will review every facet of the case to determine whether the Canadian company received a fair jury trial as required by our constitution.
Stella-Jones can afford to (and should) pay the employee it wrongly fired. Stella-Jones is a Canadian corporation that is self-described as "a leading North American producer" of industrial pressure treated railway ties and telephone poles. The company is publicly traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (TSX: SJ) and reported $130 million in sales in 2011. The Canadian corporation operates 19 wood treating facilities (including 11 in the United States).
Stella-Jones wasn't forced out of West Virginia. It engaged in a smash-and-grab operation. Stella-Jones rolled into West Virginia and purchased the Ripley facility in 2008 for $33 million (along with four other plants) and then turned around and transferred the Ripley operations to Pittsburgh. This act of corporate piracy shut down a Ripley plant after 55 years of operation.
Stella-Jones cannot be too surprised about the verdict because it has been sued for the exact same age-discrimination claim in the state of Washington (where it still operates a facility). Stella-Jones cannot be too sore at West Virginia because it is still operating another facility, in Spencer.
Finally, the decision to relocate the Ripley plant to Pittsburgh occurred before the Jackson County verdict ever happened. Just ask the lawyers involved in the case.
To be clear, Stella-Jones never said it relocated the Ripley plant to Pittsburgh because it was sore about a lawsuit. That rhetoric came by way of a cheap shot by a politician stumping for votes. A scare tactic, if you will. A little bit of truth stuffed with a lot of baloney.
Here is what I would prefer my governor to say:
West Virginia is a good place to work. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that "West Virginia entered 2011 as one of just a handful of states facing a budget surplus" placing us in an "enviable position." We are ranked as the best state in the country for the budget gap, sixth in the nation is short-term job growth and seventh in the country in per capita income growth. More than $14.1 billion in new business investments have been made since 2005, and last year our state's exports grew by $6.4 billion -- a rate nearly three times the national average (2010 West Virginia Development Office Annual Report). For nearly a decade, the Milken Institute (milken.org) has ranked West Virginia in the top 15 least-expensive states to do business.
Not too shabby if you ask me.
While other states try to avoid government shutdowns and ballooning debt, West Virginia continues to grow and prosper. Rather than ridiculing West Virginia, Maloney should be promoting, defending or fighting for West Virginia. Maybe he can start stumping on the campaign trail that we are hard workers from good families. Or, at least, he should get his facts right before dumping on us. After all, facts are stubborn things.
Farrell is president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.