Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Jeremy Dodge sits on a work table on the back porch of his home on Foster Road in East Montpelier, which he now rents from new owner Gov. Peter Shumlin.
MONTPELIER — When Peter Shumlin saw for himself the severity of his neighbor’s plight last fall, the second-term governor said Friday, he decided then and there he couldn’t turn his back on the man.
Winter was already bearing down hard, and Jeremy Dodge — the man from whom Shumlin would soon purchase a 16-acre homestead at well below the assessed value — was, according to Shumlin, without heat, electricity or plumbing.
“He needed action right there and then,” Shumlin said during his first interview since news of the controversial land deal broke Wednesday. “I could not in good conscience walk away. … I just wasn’t going to do it. Now, maybe some folks can do that. I don’t have the ability to do that — that’s just the truth.”
Friends and family members of Dodge this week accused Shumlin of exploiting Dodge’s desperation by using the specter of an imminent tax sale to snap up for $58,000 a property they say would have fetched far more at auction.
But in a succession of one-on-one interviews Friday afternoon, Shumlin presented members of the media a competing narrative, one in which he was a compassionate Vermonter coming to the rescue of a struggling neighbor, while ensuring a “fair outcome” for himself.
“What has been missed in these stories is this was a very difficult situation, and (Dodge) was in a really hard place,” Shumlin said. “Family members for whatever reason couldn’t help, other neighbors weren’t lining up to help. The challenges were much more than a tax sale.”
However honorable the terms of the deal he struck with Dodge last fall, Shumlin said, he’s ready to renegotiate them now.
Friday morning he walked to his 54-year-old neighbor’s front door, olive branch in hand.
“We had a really nice conversation, and I went for the purposes of giving him a letter saying that … I am committed to working together with him to come to a resolution that works for both of us,” Shumlin said.
Unlike the last time they entered into a real estate transaction, Shumlin said, this time he’ll see to it that the seller of the East Montpelier farmland has a lawyer when they discuss the terms.
“I encouraged him to get a lawyer the last time. He refused to do so,” Shumlin said. “But I said, ‘This time you have to have a lawyer, and I’m happy to pay for it.’”
That Shumlin didn’t ensure Dodge had legal advice during the last round of talks is among the facts cited by critics as evidence of his impropriety in the deal. Dodge’s own family members describe him as a cognitively stunted ne’er-do-well whose lifelong run-ins with the law reflect the antisocial tendencies that caused him to accumulate a nearly $18,000 tax bill in the four years since he inherited the homestead from his parents.
One of his adult daughters has called Dodge a “16-year-old mind” in a 54-year-old body, mentally incapable of defending his interests against a real estate investor as accomplished as Shumlin.
Dodge, on furlough for a domestic assault conviction in 2011, makes less than $10,000 a year in his part-time job at a Salvation Army warehouse. He blames his ninth-grade education, severe stutter and extensive criminal history for his inability to hold steady work.
Shumlin cut a deal with Dodge to purchase the land prior to the tax sale — a deal to which Dodge this week said he assented only because he believed he would lose the home immediately otherwise. In fact he would have by law been able to remain there for a year, during which time he or family members would have been able to retrieve the deed by paying the back taxes, plus interest.
Even had Dodge not been able to come up with the money, he and his family say, the price for which the property would have gone at auction — it was most recently appraised for $140,000 — would have been much higher than what Shumlin paid.
But Shumlin said Friday that Dodge was keenly aware of the deal before him.
“I firmly believe that (Dodge) understood clearly what his options were,” Shumlin said. “He understood the agreement, and he knew exactly what he was doing. I never doubted that.”
And while he never told Dodge that he’d be able to hold on to the house for a year if it did go to tax sale, Shumlin said, that wasn’t a viable option for him anyway.
“What a tax sale would have done for (Dodge) is left him for a year in limbo with no electricity, no heat, no water,” Shumlin said. “He would have been homeless.”
Asked why he didn’t insist that Dodge have a lawyer last time, Shumlin said he tried.
Dodge said earlier this week that Shumlin did encourage him to get a lawyer but that when he explained he didn’t have any money to pay for one, the governor responded by saying “we’d just use his lawyers.”
According to Shumlin, “I urged (Dodge) to get a lawyer multiple times.”
“You can’t get someone to do something they’re not willing to do,” Shumlin said. “I’m just telling you that is what happened.”
Shumlin said Dodge got a fair bargain anyway, one that provided him a livable residence through winter, thanks only to Shumlin’s willingness to step in and cover utility and other expenses. Shumlin also made Dodge’s delinquent child support payments as part of the purchase-and-sale agreement, the first version of which amounted to $32,000. Amendments to that agreement — including $9,000 for “prepaid occupancy” and $9,000 for repair credits — brought the final price to $58,000.
“And whenever he’d call me for money, I’d give him money, while we were trying to work out the details,” Shumlin said. “And I would pay the bills that needed to be paid, and that’s not accounted for in the money that’s been reflected in the press, so it was an additional expense.”
Dodge is contractually obligated to depart the premises by July 15, though Shumlin said he’s willing to let him stay longer.
Shumlin said he also encouraged Dodge to avoid the sale altogether by seeking help from family members with his unpaid taxes. Dodge’s daughter told the press this week that she was unable to raise the cash she’d need to avert the tax sale.
“What I said to him was, ‘The best possible outcome for you is to get one of your kids, one of your family members to pay down the taxes, even put the deed in their name if you have to, but at least then you’ll have a family member owning your house,’” Shumlin said.
The governor said his concern for Dodge comes despite the man’s capacity for misdeeds.
“Here’s the thing about Dodge — when he’s sober and he’s not on drugs, there’s a lot to appreciate and respect about Jeremy Dodge,” Shumlin said. “When he is on drugs and he is not sober, he’s one of the most despicable human beings that you can deal with, according to what I’ve been told.”
Shumlin said that as his neighbor, he’s ready to help Dodge realize the best version of himself.
“Do you give up on him? This is a guy right now that’s trying to better himself,” Shumlin said. “When I said that I would help, and come to an arrangement that would be good for both of us, I knew full well that I meant I was going to help and see this thing all the way through. And I’m committed to doing that.”
Asked what his resolution with Dodge might look like in the end, Shumlin declined to speculate.
“I don’t see any benefit in … doing that through the press, so I’m just not going to get into any specifics on ideas that I have,” Shumlin said. “What Jerry needs the most is good, clean, livable housing.”
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