• Gov. upset at questions about land deal
     | October 05,2012

    MONTPELIER — Miffed by a persistent line of questioning over a recent land deal, Gov. Peter Shumlin departed abruptly from a Thursday afternoon news conference after defending a real estate transaction in which he acquired a 27-acre parcel for considerably less than its market value.

    A tract of East Montpelier farmland Shumlin purchased in June for $35,000 has since been valued by town listers at nearly double that amount. In a story that appeared in Wednesday’s Rutland Herald, the Democratic governor said he negotiated the sale price based on the per-acre value of a larger lot from which his parcel was subdivided. The private appraisal on which that value was based was commissioned by the sellers, he said.

    During Thursday’s news conference, Shumlin said he “absolutely” got a better deal than he would have if the tract had been sold as a stand-alone lot on the open market. Shumlin is building a 2,200-square-foot home on the property.

    Thursday he expounded on the reasons he was able to cut such an advantageous deal.

    Shumlin said he initially wanted to buy the entire farm of approximately 182 acres off a rural back road and negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement with the sellers, John and Ellen Riley, in anticipation of doing so.

    When he showed his find to close friends visiting from out of state, Shumlin said, they were immediately taken with the farm.

    “Very close friends of mine who were looking for a farm for a long time came up and looked at it and said, ‘This is a dream for us. This is the farm we’ve been looking for,’” Shumlin said.

    He said they pointed out to him that they would be able to enjoy the farm forever, whereas he would be departing for his home in Putney when he was through being governor.

    “And I thought that was a reasonable point, because I’m here at the whim of the voters and when the voters are done with me, I’ll return to southern Vermont, where I live,” Shumlin said. “So they suggested that they buy the farm from me, take the purchase-and-sale agreement, and peel off a small piece of land and sell it to me, at a reasonable price, and that’s how we got where we are.”

    Shumlin said he did them a favor by agreeing to void the purchase-and-sale agreement, and that they returned that favor by giving him the land at a price below what they would have been able to fetch on the market.

    “We were both given gifts,” Shumlin said. “I chose not to buy the farm that I was planning to buy, at their pleading, and they sold me a piece of land at a very fair and reasonable rate. We all won.”

    Shumlin paid $35,000 for his parcel; his friends paid $630,000 for the remaining 154 acres, which included a farmhouse and other buildings.

    Shumlin said everything about the deal was above-board.

    “There’s nothing dishonest, there’s nothing to dig up,” he said. “Unless you’re writing for The New York Post, I can’t imagine what you’re digging for.”

    Asked about the identity of the friends with whom he brokered the transaction, Shumlin said he was unwilling to discuss his private relationships.

    Shumlin and his friends each purchased their respective portions of the property through limited-liability corporations formed in June, shortly before they finalized the sale.

    According to an LLC database at the secretary of state’s office, Shumlin’s friends are David M. and Patrice Cromwell, of Lutherville-Timonium, Md., and Thomas A. and Christianne Hagemann, of Houston.

    David Cromwell is a gastroenterologist, and Patrice Cromwell is on the senior leadership team at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Thomas Hagemann is a partner at the law firm Gardere, where he specializes in white-collar criminal defense. Christianne Mays Hagemann is a TV and film actress whose credits include “Cottonmouth,” “Sons of Thunder” and “Opposites Attract.” She also played a nurse on the series “thirtysomething.”

    Each of the four has contributed $1,000 to Shumlin’s re-election campaign.

    The 40-minute news conference departed for a few minutes from Shumlin’s land buy, then returned to the subject when reporters inquired about why he formed a limited liability corporation through which to conduct the transaction.

    A Shumlin campaign official said this week the governor forms LLCs for all his property transactions as a means of protecting his other assets from any future claims against the property.

    Shumlin on Thursday said he already answered questions about why he uses LLCs.

    “You’ll find that’s common for people who have a real estate business,” said Shumlin, who owns 17 properties, including many rental units. “You’re going to criticize me now for forming an LLC with the rest of Vermont and America? I’m just wondering what you’re digging for.”

    Visibly peeved by the land-related questions, Shumlin abruptly walked away from the podium and left the room.

    peter.hirschfeld @rutlandherald.com

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