FBI role raises questions
A few weeks into the 2013 legislative session, Special Agent Christopher Destito began making the rounds at the Statehouse.
According to three people with whom he spoke, Destito said he planned to reinvigorate what had been a sleepy public-corruption division at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Vermont headquarters in Burlington.
He had informal meetings with several lawmakers, handed out his card, and encouraged anyone with information about shady dealings by government officials to get in touch.
It’s the same Christopher Destito who has allegedly been asking around about Gov. Peter Shumlin’s controversial land deal with Jeremy Dodge last fall. But while reports of FBI involvement have appeared in multiple media outlets over the past week, evidence of any criminal wrongdoing is nonexistent. And save for a noncommittal statement from U.S. District Attorney Tristram Coffin, federal authorities have been tight-lipped about what it is they’re after.
Asked last Wednesday whether the FBI was interviewing people in an effort to gain information about a land deal in which Shumlin purchased for $58,000 a 16-acre homestead valued by town listers at $140,000, Coffin offered a terse statement.
“The FBI followed up on a routine lead,” Coffin told the Vermont Press Bureau. “And there’s no active investigation in our office.”
Asked whether that routine lead related to Shumlin’s land deal, Coffin said he wouldn’t comment further.
Three people earlier this month relayed off-the-record accounts to the Press Bureau of being interviewed by Destito about Shumlin. But it wasn’t until Bernie Corliss spoke with the Bureau last Tuesday that someone came forward with an on-the-record story of an FBI interview.
Corliss, a longtime friend of Dodge’s, said Destito had knocked on the front door of his residence at the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin last Monday evening.
“He just wanted to know what I knew about the deal, and what I knew about Jeremy,” Corliss told the Vermont Press Bureau last Tuesday, a day before news of the land deal broke. “I gave him all the information I had, and he left his card.”
A business card on a table in Corliss’ living room contained Destito’s name and contact number. The Vermont Press Bureau made phone contact with Destito on Tuesday evening. Asked whether he was interviewing people about the Shumlin/Dodge land deal, Destito said, “I’m sorry, I can’t speak to the press.”
“If I do, I’ll get in a lot of trouble,” Destito said.
Asked if he would speak off the record about the matter, he declined.
“I’m sorry, I don’t cut corners,” Destito said.
The FBI traditionally takes the lead on state-level public-corruption investigations and is, according to its government website, “singularly situated to combat this corruption, with the skills and capabilities to run complex undercover operations and surveillance.”
According to Coffin, there is no “investigation.” And Shumlin said Friday that the only thing he knows about the FBI link is what he’s read in the press.
“We have not been contacted by anyone from law enforcement anywhere along the process,” Shumlin said.
A series of one-on-one interviews with media outlets Friday suggests that Shumlin and his legal advisers are supremely confident there’s nothing to the FBI angle. A criminal defense attorney who spoke on background last week said the governor would under no circumstances submit to open-ended questioning from reporters if he believed a formal deposition was in the offing.