Trouble continues for Gov. Peter Shumlin in response to his ill-fated deal to buy the land and house of his neighbor in East Montpelier.
Last week we learned that Republicans are not inclined to ease Shumlin’s embarrassment. Brady Toensing, a prominent lawyer who previously represented a Republican candidate for governor, Brian Dubie, has agreed to represent Jeremy Dodge, Shumlin’s neighbor, who had faced the prospect of a delinquent tax sale before he sold his property to Shumlin. Also lining up to support Dodge is Joy Karnes Limoge, a real estate lawyer and prominent supporter of Randy Brock, the Republican candidate for governor in 2012.
But that’s not all. It turns out that complaints from the public to Attorney General William Sorrell have caused Sorrell to refer the matter to the state Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, which has responsibility for investigating allegations that disabled people have been abused. The department does not discuss individual cases, but Shumlin’s lawyer, M. Jerome Diamond, acknowledged that Adult Protective Services had been in touch with the governor.
It’s not clear to what extent Dodge wants to complicate the issue for Shumlin. The governor has said he was willing to reverse the sale, turning back the property to Dodge. No doubt, a speedy disposition of the case would be in Shumlin’s interest and possibly in Dodge’s.
The whole imbroglio grew out of Dodge’s financial difficulties. He had inherited the house and 16 acres where his parents had lived, but he was making only about $10,000 a year, and soon he had amassed a delinquent tax bill of about $18,000. Faced with the possible loss of his property, he agreed to sell it to Shumlin, who had built his own house on adjacent land.
Dodge’s daughter says her father has the mind of a 16-year-old, and he has a record of trouble with the law, and with drugs and alcohol. He did not obtain the services of a lawyer in selling his property, though Shumlin urged him to do so. Ultimately, Shumlin bought the property for $58,000, though it had an assessed value of $140,000.
After Dodge went public with his regrets about selling the property, the public outcry reached the attorney general’s office in the form of complaints about Shumlin’s action. “It is obvious that Gov. Shumlin scammed a mentally deficient neighbor out of his rightful inheritance,” said one. “The public has a right to know what kind of person is in the governor’s office,” said another.
Toensing, representing Dodge, is now in a position to maximize Shumlin’s embarrassment. He denies any political intentions and says he only wants to help someone in need. “Mr. Dodge has been dealing with a sophisticated and shrewd businessman, a businessman who is also the most powerful person in Vermont, represented by one of the best lawyers money can buy.”
If Dodge is as malleable or as vulnerable as people suggest, Toensing runs the risk of appearing to be exploiting Dodge in his own way. The extent to which Dodge can determine his own interests, or whether he becomes a pawn in a political game, remains to be seen.
Apart from political troubles fomented by Republicans, the legal case about potential exploitation will have a momentum of its own, meaning Shumlin’s difficulties could be prolonged. Investigators for the state will have to determine whether Dodge falls into the category of impairment due to “developmental disability” or other limitation. If he does, then it could find that Shumlin took advantage of him for “wrongful profit.” That would be a supreme embarrassment.
Depending on how the case turns out, Republicans may be emboldened to take on Shumlin with renewed vigor in the election next year. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who has been biding his time and making friends, may start to think of mounting a challenge. Progressives in the state are also considering whether to challenge Shumlin, dismayed as they are with some of his anti-progressive positions earlier this year. A Progressive candidacy, combined with a strong Republican candidate, could spell trouble for Shumlin.
It’s clear that, until the Dodge case is resolved with finality, it will weigh heavily on Shumlin’s administration. The administration has much work to do to bring health care reform to fruition. Shumlin will, no doubt, be looking for a way to make amends with Dodge to keep his administration on track.