Jeremy Dodge doesn't want to leave his childhood home in East Montpelier. But his days on Foster Road are numbered.
"It's my homestead," he said. "You know, I planned on dying here."
That plan changed last year when the town put his property up for tax sale. Dodge owed almost $18,000 in back taxes. He thought if it went to auction, he'd be homeless in 30 days.
The day before the tax sale, his neighbor knocked on his door with an offer to buy him out that Dodge thought would be his saving grace. That neighbor was Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Reporter Jennifer Reading: Who approached who?
Jeremy Dodge: The governor approached me... I had no offer prior to the tax sale. So, it sounded good to me.
Dodge says the two men met one-on-one at least 15 times. Shumlin negotiated himself, scrawling the terms of the deal on a folder. The home and 16-acre property was appraised in 2009 for $233,700. The governor initially offered Dodge $32,000, then upped it to $58,000. The deal closed the day after Shumlin was re-elected. But now Dodge admits he didn't understand that he could have gotten a better deal had it gone to tax sale.
"I'm a slow learner to start with," Dodge said. "I have a hard time comprehending a lot of things."
Shumlin has made money off real estate deals. According to tax returns released during a previous campaign, he holds several properties and is worth millions of dollars. Dodge is an ex-con on food stamps earning less than $8,000 a year. Dodge says he couldn't afford an attorney, so Shumlin offered up his lawyer and asked Dodge not to talk to reporters about the deal.
"I was definitely outgunned," Dodge said. "You know, he's got millions or whatever he's got and I had nothing."
"At this point, I think he was taken advantage of," said Bernie Corliss, Dodge's lifelong friend.
Corliss says the 53-year-old's mental health has gone downhill since his parents died seven years ago. That's when Dodge inherited their home, which his parents had paid off. Corliss believes Dodge should be in an assisted-living facility and says he wasn't capable of negotiating a complex real estate deal with the governor.
"The governor had to have known that he could talk circles around Jerry and Jerry wouldn't know what he was saying," Corliss said.
The land deal attracted the attention of federal authorities. Corliss says an FBI agent came to his door Monday, telling him he was investigating the legality of the deal. The agent even left a card.
"He asked me what I thought Jerry's mental ability was. He asked me if I thought there was something wrong with the buy," Corliss said.
WCAX News confirmed the FBI's involvement. The U.S. Attorney for Vermont said agents followed up on a tip. Authorities would not tell us what they were looking for, but say there is no active investigation.
Corliss says even if the deal is legal, he thinks it's unethical.
"A good person with ethics would have definitely done something different," he said.
"Obviously, he got a very good deal," said Ross Hazel, East Montpelier's head lister. "He got the whole property for less than what the land is worth."
Hazel says after the governor bought Dodge's place, Shumlin wanted his taxes lowered.
"He did suggest that, you know, this was a worthless property and it isn't worth what we had it in for," Hazel said.
Hazel reassessed the property, slashing its appraised value by $93,000.
"I took the value down to the cost of the foundation," Hazel said. "It's unusual to see something drop that far."
Hazel denies Shumlin got special treatment, but admits it was hard to ignore that he's the state's leader.
"There is a subconscious influence," he said, "but you try to be aware of that and assess it accurately because that's my job."
We wanted to get Governor Shumlin's side of the story. He refused to answer our questions and instead issued the following statement:
"I am very concerned about this misleading story. It is important for Vermonters to know the facts. Jerry Dodge is my next-door neighbor, and I see and talk with him frequently. As was reported in the press last fall, it is a matter of public record that I purchased his property when the town had scheduled a tax sale on his home. Taking into account a number of factors, including the extremely poor interior condition of the home which would require it to be gutted or torn down, we decided on a $58,000 price that we both thought was fair. I am surprised and saddened to hear that Jerry now has changed his mind and says he regrets the sale. I had understood that the arrangement was acceptable to both of us until hearing of this story."
Under the deal, the governor allowed Dodge to remain at home rent-free. But Dodge must move out by July 15. News that brought his friend to tears.
"It's hard even for me," Corliss said.
And Corliss says the $15,000 that the governor promised Dodge on move-out day is not going to go far enough.
"I can bet within a year, Jerry will be homeless," Corliss said. "He'll be under a bridge somewhere."
Jennifer Reading: How do you think you are going to feel come July 15?
Jeremy Dodge: Real bad. Like I disappointed Mom and Dad.
Six months after the deal closed, Dodge says he's seen very little money from the sale. He says the governor gave him $3,000 at closing and claims Shumlin kept the rest of the money, using it to pay off Dodge's back taxes and also child support.
Jeremy Dodge says he's talking now because he says the governor asked him multiple times not to talk to the media. But Dodge says he's breaking his silence now in hopes sharing his story will help others down on their luck avoid losing their homes.
Tuesday, March 11 2014 5:59 PM EDT2014-03-11 21:59:43 GMT
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