Citizens seek probe of Shumlin deal sent
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | June 14,2013
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s controversial land deal has spawned calls from citizens for an independent investigation, though it remains unclear whether state officials have launched a probe.
Attorney General William Sorrell confirmed Thursday that at least six Vermonters have asked for a formal review of a transaction last fall in which Shumlin purchased a 16-acre homestead for about one-third of its current assessed value.
Sorrell said citizens have expressed a particular concern for the mental acuity of the man from whom Shumlin purchased the acreage and whether the transaction constituted abuse of a vulnerable adult.
Sorrell, who first disclosed the complaints during an interview on WDEV’s “The Mark Johnson Show” Wednesday, said he’s referred the correspondence to the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, the state agency responsible for investigating claims of abuse or exploitation of a vulnerable adult. A lawyer at that department said the state can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the complaints or whether they have prompted an investigation into Shumlin’s land deal.
“Whether any reports were made or emails forwarded, and how they’re being treated by DAIL, and more specifically by Adult Protective Services, is a confidential matter,” said Stuart Schurr, assistant attorney general for the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.
Sorrell, however, said the allegations “seem to be serious contentions and worthy of at least some review.”
“They’re not likely to be dismissed out of hand,” Sorrell said.
A written statement provided by Shumlin’s personal lawyer Thursday seemed to suggest that state investigators have already been in touch with the Democratic governor.
“We have been in contact with (Adult Protective Services) and will continue to be involved in any way they request,” attorney Jerry Diamond said in an email.
Diamond, who also said Shumlin “believes strongly that all such complaints should be thoroughly investigated with the participation of the parties,” declined to comment further.
The citizen complaints came mostly in the form of emails to Sorrell’s office and express dismay over a real estate transaction that began making headlines last month when East Montpelier resident Jeremy Dodge first went public with his seller’s remorse.
Dodge and his children say Shumlin used the specter of a looming tax sale to lowball Dodge on the homestead he inherited from his parents in 2009. One of Dodge’s daughters has characterized their father as a “16-year-old mind inside a 54-year-old body,” and they say he lacked the mental acuity to evaluate Shumlin’s offer. Dodge did not have a lawyer to represent him in the transaction.
Shumlin has said the deal was a fair one for both him and Dodge and that he has no reason to suspect the seller’s mental faculties are in any way diminished. He said he urged Dodge to get a lawyer but that Dodge refused.
Both Shumlin and Dodge have since retained high-powered attorneys. Diamond, a former three-term attorney general, is handling the case on behalf of Shumlin; Brady Toensing, a Charlotte lawyer with ties to the Republican Party, is representing Dodge. Joy Karnes Limoge, a Williston property lawyer, will also be working on behalf of Dodge.
Correspondence to Sorrell’s office, released Thursday after a records request, question both the legality and ethics of the land deal.
“I would like to know if your office intends to investigate Shumlin’s land deals,” Sally Minor wrote May 28. “For the governor of Vermont to take advantage of any mentally challenged person is despicable.”
In another May 28 message, East Montpelier resident Walter Zeichner called for “a very transparent investigation.”
“The public has a right to know what kind of person is in the governor’s office,” Zeichner wrote.
On June 8, Rich Hollenbeck Sr. asked that Shumlin be investigated for “taking advantage of one that clearly isn’t in complete touch with reality, not knowing what direction to turn to get even the basic help afforded to folks in his position.”
Kristin Anderson on May 29 told Sorrell in an email that “it is obvious that Gov. Shumlin scammed a mentally deficient neighbor out of his rightful inheritance.”
“Please create a transparent plan to look into the details of this apparently unjust dealing, and see if this wrong can be righted,” Anderson wrote.
Speaking about the process at Adult Protective Services generally, Schurr said the division’s screeners vet claims to see whether they merit investigation by a field supervisor. That vetting process, Schurr said, centers largely on whether the alleged victim meets the statutory definition of a “vulnerable adult” and whether the alleged behavior constitutes the “abuse, neglect or exploitation” needed to launch an investigation.
A vulnerable adult, under Vermont law, includes anyone who “is impaired due to brain damage, infirmities of aging, or a physical, mental, or developmental disability.” “Exploitation” of a vulnerable adult, according to statute, includes “willfully using, withholding, transferring or disposing of funds or property of a vulnerable adult for the wrongful profit or advantage of another.”
Schurr said that if the complaints pass muster with screeners, they’re handed off to field supervisors who investigate the merits of the claims. Two investigators in the financial exploitation unit would likely handle probes dealing with real estate transactions.
When claims of malfeasance are substantiated, Schurr said, the perpetrator’s name is generally placed on a statewide registry. The registry is not a public document.
Schurr said the state also has the authority to levy fines, though it rarely uses that power.