• The trust question
    June 09,2013

    The controversy surrounding Gov. Peter Shumlin’s land deal got nastier last week with the potential for causing serious damage to the governor’s public standing and weakening him politically.

    Leading Republicans weighed in with comments that were harsh and personal. Rep. Patti Komline from Dorset said, “We don’t know how many predators are out there that are going to look at this opportunity,” meaning Shumlin had set an unfortunate example for those who may be tempted to prey on troubled people.

    Shumlin hit back hard, using his lawyer, M. Jerome Diamond, to denounce the description of Shumlin as a predator. Diamond, a former attorney general, called Komline’s comment “outrageous.”

    Komline and Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington were trying to make a larger point about the tax system, saying it was so complicated that people of limited education, such as Jeremy Dodge, Shumlin’s East Montpelier neighbor, may end up amassing huge unpaid tax bills because they don’t know how to do their taxes properly.

    It was a fair point. Because property taxes are levied as a percentage of income for those making less than $90,000, Dodge should have faced annual tax bills of about $500. Instead he was billed about $5,000 annually and faced a delinquent tax bill of $18,000.

    But the point about taxes may have been overshadowed by the personal accusations about Shumlin’s behavior, which threaten him politically because they touch on a quality that has always been his weakness. Shumlin has long been viewed as a crafty political operator, which to those on his side is not necessarily a detriment, though his craftiness can create an uneasiness that translates as a lack of trust.

    He is also a wealthy businessman, a credential that he has been proud to tout to voters concerned about the economy. Republicans and moderates are often comforted by a candidate’s familiarity with the business world.

    But it is an era when wealthy businessmen also suffer a trust deficit. The shady dealings and criminality that caused the economic crash of 2008 gave us business people as predators, the harsh word used by Komline, which is an accurate description of the bankers and real estate operators who built the Ponzi scheme that wrecked the economy.

    Shumlin’s dealings with his neighbor were small potatoes by comparison, but they do not cast him in a favorable light. Facing a big bill for back taxes, as well as delinquent child support payments, and earning very little money, Dodge chose to sell the property in East Montpelier that he had inherited from his parents. Shumlin, seeking to add to the property where he had built a house, bought Dodge’s property for $58,000. It was assessed for $140,000.

    The details of the case are familiar by now. Shumlin suggested Dodge hire a lawyer to represent him, but Dodge couldn’t afford it so he sold his property without a lawyer’s advice. Shumlin said he thought he was doing Dodge a favor.

    Eventually, Dodge and his relatives complained that they wished they had never sold the property. It was a major embarrassment for the governor, who looked like he may have been taking advantage of someone, and for Dodge, whose personal problems were now a matter of public discussion.

    Now Shumlin says he will sell the property back to Dodge. Who knows if Dodge can afford to take it back? Shumlin probably wants to put the whole mess behind him. But his Republican opponents do not seem so willing to let it go.

    Shumlin has achieved a level of importance that may make him a more tempting target for Republicans at the state and national levels. He is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, and national Republicans can be expected to use any means they can find to tarnish him. Meanwhile, at the state level, if Republicans believe Shumlin has become vulnerable, they may look for a candidate with the stature to challenge him.

    It is a difficult issue. The more Shumlin explains, the worse he looks. Saying he was doing Dodge a favor sounds like a hollow and self-serving excuse. Dodge is no angel, and he and his family may be trying to figure what they can get out of the deal. But why shouldn’t they? Isn’t that what those who have the money do every day?

    Shumlin has an impressive record of accomplishment in his tenure as governor, especially his pioneering health care efforts. But the character issue has arisen in a way he has not seen before. One hopes it does not jeopardize the significant good he has done for the state.

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