AFP InDepth | ’84 bankruptcy filing an issue in 20th
The Augusta Free Press confirmed the filing by obtaining a copy of the court documents associated with the bankruptcy and talking about the circumstances around the filing with Bell on Tuesday.
The bankruptcy had taken on something of the status of legend among the local political chatter class since Bell had been tapped as the 20th District GOP nominee in July. Bell, in his interview with the AFP today, said he had “nothing to hide” in discussing the matter.
“It’s public record. It’s there for anybody to see anytime they want to,” Bell said.
The bankruptcy involved a grocery store on Springhill Road in Staunton, The Country Market, that Bell and his wife, Anne, purchased in 1982. “We invested everything we had into the business,” Bell said.
The business was “doing well” at the outset, Bell said, but then the bottom fell out from under the market when the building that the store was located in went into foreclosure. The Bells “panicked” and decided to buy the building. “We felt we had no choice. We were all in by this point,” Bell said.
That decision would prove fateful. “What that did was pretty much destroyed our plan for the business. We had a payment that we hadn’t anticipated that was significantly more than the rent that we had negotiated,” Bell said.
The bankruptcy petition, filed Sept. 10, 1984, listed $162,378 in personal and business debts. Bell said all the debts were eventually repaid except for one to the previous owner of The Country Market that he said was effectively satisfied through the relief of unpaid grocery bills.
“We don’t feel good about it, but we felt like we did everything we could do. We didn’t break any laws. On the advice of our lawyer we filed for the bankruptcy protection because we were in that position. We didn’t have much else we could do,” Bell said.
“Every decision wasn’t the best decision, I’m sure. And under the stress we did some things differently than we would have done under other circumstances. But we didn’t shortchange anybody on the effort,” Bell said.
The Bell bankruptcy filing could play a role in the decision of voters in the 20th District, which includes Staunton and Highland County and portions of Augusta County and Rockingham County, but exactly what role it will play is uncertain.
“It depends on how it is dealt with and how it is perceived by voters,” said Isaac Wood with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. On the one hand, “it may be seen that the candidate was irresponsible or somehow escaped from their responsibilities,” Wood said. But the news about the filing “could humanize” Bell with voters, Wood said, “showing them that he has the same concerns as working people.”
“There are many examples of people with bankruptcies who have gone on to serve in office. So it’s not a disqualifier in any sense,” Wood said.
“The question is whether people look at something from 25 years ago and say, Is this truly who the person is, or whether they’re willing to forgive and forget, because people change and evolve over time,” Wood said.
The AFP contacted Bell’s Democratic Party opponent, Erik Curren, for comment on this story late Tuesday afternoon. Curren declined to offer a comment for the story.
Bell has run for and won four elections to terms on Staunton City Council. The bankruptcy “has never been an issue” in his runs for public office to now, Bell said.
“It’s 25 years old, and it’s hard to understand why it would be an issue now. But if it is, it is. We can’t turn back the clock and change that. We did the only thing we thought we could do, and that was to go forward in a positive way and just try to correct what we could correct and make it a positive thing for us,” Bell said.
“I don’t like that it’s come up. It’s unfortunate. When these kinds of things come up, it’s always an effort to smear somebody. And I feel like the way we handled it and the things we did, we shouldn’t be smeared for it,” Bell said.
– Story by Chris Graham