EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Soon after the successful real estate investor built his McMansion on a rural dirt road here outside Vermont’s capital, he began throwing his wealth around, striking a deal to bail out his neighbor from a looming tax sale by buying the man’s property for a quarter of its appraised value.
Such a sale is not uncommon and likely would have gone unnoticed. Except the buyer was the governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin. And the seller, Jerry Dodge, was a hard-luck ne’er-do-well with a criminal record and what his friends and family describe as limited intellect and diminishing prospects.
Since word of the deal surfaced last week, Shumlin has been under intense scrutiny in the state. Real estate lawyers generally conclude that he did nothing illegal, but that the governor might still have held himself to a higher standard of conduct, raising the question of when a savvy business deal becomes bad for his politics.
Shumlin “did take a little bit of advantage of Jerry,” said Dodge’s longtime friend Bernie Corliss. “I truly believe if we don’t get things straightened out for (Dodge), he will be homeless. It’s a sad case to see somebody I care about in this position.”
Some of Dodge’s dissatisfaction appears to have been fueled by family and friends telling him he took too little for his property. He recalled reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as a child, before he left school in the ninth grade. It’s not justice for all, he said. It’s “justice for the rich.”
Shumlin maintains he was just trying to help his neighbor. Dodge inherited the house from his late parents in 2009 and had fallen about $17,000 behind on his property taxes. His power had been shut off, so he faced a New England winter with only two woodstoves to provide heat.
Shumlin offered a deal he valued at $58,000, including free rent for a year and $15,000 cash when Dodge moved out, originally scheduled for July 15 of this year.
Along Vermont’s dirt roads, well-heeled professionals often live in fine houses across the road from a rundown trailer or next door to a ramshackle farmhouse. That’s how two men in their 50s came to be neighbors.
Shumlin’s house sits back from the road, at the top of a sloping lawn, with a low stone wall in front of it and what appears to be a newly constructed two-car garage nearby. Dodge’s house is an early-1980s split-level ranch, with a large construction waste bin full of refuse in the front yard and a shutter hanging askew next to the window above the garage. Inside, every surface in Dodge’s kitchen is covered with dirty dishes, pots, pans, empty and half-empty food containers and other items.
Shumlin, 57, is the son of the founders of a successful business that books foreign travels for privileged students from around the country. He overcame childhood dyslexia, graduated from Wesleyan University, went into the family business and began investing in real estate in southern Vermont. Soon he ran for elected office, starting with the local town council and moving to the Vermont House and Senate before winning the governor’s office in 2010.
Vermont doesn’t have a governor’s mansion. Montpelier is almost a two-hour drive from Putney, so when the part-time legislator became full-time governor, it made sense for him to begin eyeing property near the capital.
Dodge, 53, is part of a multi-generational East Montpelier farm family. There’s a Dodge Road and a Dodge Brook near his home. But he has had a checkered life. He left school after the ninth grade and said he has poor reading skills. He has arrests for drug possession and served a prison term for domestic abuse. In conversation, he is lucid, but has a severe stutter. His 26-year-old daughter, Rochelle, described him to local newspapers as having the mind of a 16-year-old.
Shumlin said Dodge had done some chores for him, cutting wood and the like, when Dodge came to him last fall and said he faced the prospect of his home being auctioned off so the town could recoup some of the tax money he owed and asked whether the governor could do anything to help.
Shumlin said he was initially reluctant to get involved, and urged Dodge to ask his family for help. But Dodge approached him again weeks later, Shumlin said, and he decided to offer a solution that he thought would help his neighbor “while also protecting me.” He crafted the deal that recently has drawn so much controversy.
“This was a really destitute person,” said Harriet Wood, 75, a painter from South Woodbury whose works are on display at the Vermont Supreme Court. Instead of finding help for Dodge, Shumlin made a deal that worked for him, Wood said. “It just seemed like a really shabby, underhanded maneuver, the whole thing.”
Some criticism of the deal has stemmed from the fact that Dodge did not have a lawyer to represent him. He has told some media outlets that he could not afford one, but Shumlin said he never heard this from Dodge and has offered to pay for Dodge’s lawyer in their next round of talks.
Dodge’s inability to afford a lawyer also was questioned by Liam Murphy, a Burlington attorney who does extensive work in real estate law. He said most real estate lawyers do not collect a fee until a deal closes, then take their cut out of the proceeds of the sale.
Shumlin has extended the deadline for Dodge to move out, and said Wednesday he looked forward to sitting down with Dodge and seeing what can be done to make him happier with the deal. Dodge hasn’t said what that would take.
“When Jerry asked for my help to avoid the tax sale, I agreed,” the governor said in a statement, “and I want to see this through to a good resolution.”