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Shumlin Land Buy Questioned

Friday, May 24, 2013
Montpelier — Buffeted by criticism over a land deal with his troubled East Montpelier neighbor, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’ll waive the July 15 deadline by which Jeremy Dodge is contractually obligated to vacate the 16-acre homestead. But Dodge’s family members say they’re looking for more than a temporary reprieve. And according to Dodge’s daughter, Rochelle Dodge, the family will consider challenging the legitimacy of a real estate transaction into which she says her father was mentally unfit to enter.

“I feel like I can’t just let this land go,” Rochelle Dodge said last evening. “I feel like there’s just more to all of this, and that it should be brought out into the light.”

Dodge’s decision to pursue legal counsel marks the latest development in a controversy that ignited earlier this week when media outlets detailed the terms of a land deal in which Dodge signed over the deed to his home to the governor.

With $18,000 in unpaid back taxes and a tax sale fast approaching, Dodge believed that selling the house to Shumlin last fall was the only way to avoid imminent ouster from a home he inherited from his parents, he said earlier this week.

The sale price of $58,000 was less than a quarter of the $233,700 for which the property was then appraised. Town listers have since lowered the value to $140,000, due to the condition of Dodge’s home.

Rochelle Dodge, who said she didn’t find out about the transaction until February, said the deal was a sour one not only for her father, but for family members with strong ties to the only remaining acreage of the once-sprawling Dodge farm. Rochelle Dodge said her father’s unfounded belief that he would have to leave the property if it went to tax auction prompted him to accept a deal he lacked the cognitive ability to comprehend.

Had the property gone to auction, Dodge by law would have been allowed to stay in the house for a year after the sale, a period during which either he or family members would have been able to render the sale void by paying off the back taxes, plus interest.

Had the year elapsed without payment, Dodge would have received the high bid minus the back taxes — a net amount Rochelle Dodge said she’s confident would have been much higher than the sum Shumlin paid for the land.

She said she’s especially disturbed that her father didn’t have a lawyer to represent him in the transaction, something she says Shumlin, an accomplished real estate investor, should have worked diligently to avoid.

The $58,000 sale price included the money Shumlin paid to satisfy Dodge’s back taxes, delinquent child support payments and expenses to get utilities restored.

“The biggest issue I have is the governor is paying my dad’s child support, his land taxes, his electricity,” Rochelle Dodge said. “But why didn’t he offer to pay for an attorney for my dad when they went to go sign over the land? Why didn’t he offer that? Because he knows my dad isn’t capable of making those choices himself.”

While conceding Dodge did not have a lawyer, Shumlin said he “did recommend” that he get one.

Shumlin and Dodge first crossed paths in the summer of 2012, after Shumlin purchased a 32-acre parcel next to Dodge’s land. That land deal became the subject of intense media scrutiny when municipal records revealed he had purchased for $35,000 a parcel that was later valued by town listers at $147,000. The governor has since constructed a 2,200-square-foot home on that lot, a property in which he now resides.

Dodge said it was him who approached Shumlin about a possible deal to avoid the tax sale.

“I don’t have nothing bad to say about him, but yeah, I got ripped off, plain and simple,” Dodge said of Shumlin on Tuesday. “I wish it had turned out differently. I wish that I had let it go to tax auction.”

Shumlin earlier this week said he viewed the transaction as a win-win for him and Dodge.

“He had been behind on taxes and other bills for some time at this property; he didn’t have a way to stay in his place, which lacked heat, power, and water when I agreed to buy it, and couldn’t continue to serve as his home,” Shumlin said. “I believed this purchase agreement would give him the resources and time to find another place to live.”

Bernie Corliss, a longtime friend of Dodge’s, spent summers working in the fields on Dodge’s father’s old dairy farm. Corliss said he initially “thought the governor was doing a good thing” when he agreed to purchase the land from Dodge last year.

As he learned more about the particulars, Corliss said Monday in the living room of his home at the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin, he began to doubt the soundness of the deal.

“My main concern is that (Dodge) didn’t have anyone representing his interests,” Corliss said.

Corliss said he doubts Dodge has the cognitive skills to advocate for himself effectively, or even understand the basic elements of the deal.

“Jeremy’s not all there,” Corliss said Monday. “If you walk up to him, shake his hand, he seems all right. But if you spend any time with him …”

Rochelle Dodge, 28, and her sister, 26-year-old Heather Cooper — also Dodge’s daughter — say their father has never been of sound intellectual faculty. In and out of jail on a variety of drug and assault charges, Rochelle Dodge said her dad’s struggles have been lifelong.

“He’s like a 54-year-old man with a 16-year-old mind,” Rochelle Dodge said. “And if the governor talked to my dad as much as he said he did, then he knows that.”

Shumlin earlier this week defended the deal as a “fair” one, and said he “was under the impression the entire time that (Dodge) knew exactly what he was getting from the purchase — cash in hand, a place to continue to live for many months, and cash when he would get a new place.”

But Rochelle Dodge said she thinks her father was fleeced. The $58,000 sale price includes $9,000 for “prepaid occupancy,” — rent Dodge presumably would have otherwise paid Shumlin to stay in the home between the Nov. 7 closing date and the July 15 date by which he was to have left. Since he would have been able to stay there free, for a year, had Shumlin simply let the home go to auction, Rochelle Dodge said it makes no sense to assign value to the rent.

Shumlin late last evening said in a statement that he wasn’t aware that Dodge was having regrets until he began reading about it in the press. At the time the deal was finalized, Shumlin said “I firmly believe he understood (the terms) and felt they were fair.” Now that his neighbor is having second thoughts, Shumlin said, he wants to see the situation through to a “good resolution.”

“And if that means Jerry stays in the house beyond July 15, that’s fine with me,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin also said he’d encouraged Dodge to “reach out to his family for help” when Dodge asked the governor to help him avoid the tax sale.

“And he agreed that would be the best outcome,” Shumlin said in the statement. “Later he approached me and told me that he couldn’t get help from his family, and asked me to help him avoid a tax sale, which is always unpredictable.”

Rochelle Dodge said she tried unsuccessfully to secure a loan to pay off the back taxes prior to the tax sale. Having failed in that effort, she said she assumed the home had gone to auction, giving her 12 months for her to come up with the money. She said she was on the verge of securing a loan from a friend when she learned in February that Shumlin had purchased the house prior to the tax sale.

“I’m just really confused as to why the governor is doing this,” Rochelle Dodge said. “Why didn’t he let it go to auction? Or pay my dad what the property was worth? He’s a millionaire. If he’s really got to have that land, why not at least pay my dad what it’s worth?”

Rochelle Dodge said she and her father will visit a lawyer this week to discuss their options. She said she’s also working to have him evaluated at Washington County Mental Health, and that she’s planning to get his health records from Plainfield Health Center, where she said he was previously diagnosed with mental illness.

“I don’t know enough to know whether we have a case or not,” she said. “But I’m not ready to give up on that land.” Heather Cooper said their grandparents, with whom they spent summer weekends on the dairy farm, deserve a more enduring legacy.

“There’s just so many memories on that land,” Cooper said. “My grandparents would be rolling in their graves.”

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