• Knowing the ropes
    October 06,2012

    Gov. Peter Shumlin should be commended for explaining an East Montpelier real estate transaction.

    When The Times Argus approached Shumlin about the status of a 2,200-square-foot residence being built on the 27-acre parcel, the governor seized the opportunity to explain the deal he got on the parcel — well below its market value.

    Shumlin initially walked the Vermont Press Bureau’s chief, Peter Hirschfeld, through the deal — a $35,000 sale but valued by town listers at twice that amount. He explained that he had negotiated the sale price based on the per-acre value of a larger lot from which his parcel was subdivided.

    But Hirschfeld’s article generated additional questions — ones that required a follow-up, especially when a Shumlin campaign official said the governor forms limited liability companies for all his property transactions as a means of “protecting his other assets from any future claims against the property,” according to the article.

    In the meantime, other media picked up on the story, questioning how the state’s top official was able to land such a sweet deal on such prime Vermont farmland.

    On Thursday, during his weekly roundtable with the media, the governor acknowledged he got a better deal than he would have if the tract had been sold as a stand-alone lot on the open market. He explained that he had initially wanted to buy the entire farm of 182 acres and even negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement with the sellers.

    While showing off the property to some friends, whom Shumlin would not identify, they were immediately smitten with the Riley farm. Shumlin said he did his friends 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. Shumlin’s friends paid $630,000 for the remaining 154 acres, which included a farmhouse and other buildings.

    Shumlin and his friends each purchased their portions of the property through LLCs formed in June, shortly before they finalized the sale. According to 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. Each of the four has contributed $1,000 to Shumlin’s re-election campaign.

    For reasons passing understanding, the governor had had enough. He criticized reporters for “digging” into the story, going so far as to suggest their efforts were akin to the National Enquirer and the New York Post. Shumlin then stormed out of the news conference, stating everything about the deal was aboveboard.

    No one had suggested otherwise. The governor, who essentially accused some of the reporters in the room of losing their objectivity by pursuing a relatively nondescript but notable real estate transaction, appears to have lost some perspective himself.

    The governor, who is seeking re-election, holds the highest office in the state and is subject to above-average scrutiny. He knows too well the rules of engagement between politicians and the media; he’s masterful at spinning his messages. Voters and readers have a right to know who their governor is doing business with, what kinds of deals he is getting (and they might not be), and whether all of the questions that are out there have been answered satisfactorily.

    Hirschfeld and the other reporters were doing their jobs by pressing the governor — asking the same question 10 different ways — because that’s how information is gotten from polished politicians like Shumlin. His volatile, uncharacteristic reaction Thursday unfortunately raises some new questions.

    And whether Shumlin likes them or not, in order to preserve that objectivity the press honors and the public deserves, the governor will get asked those questions time and again.

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