Gov. Paul LePage is so angry that an elderly, disabled couple was evicted from their Albion home that he plans to change the law so it never happens again.
The town of Albion foreclosed on the property of Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, both 80 years old, in December 2015 because of nonpayment of taxes. The rundown camp at 180 Marden Shore Road on Lovejoy Pond was sold by the town for $6,500 and the new owner evicted the couple last week.
“I’m livid about it and I think we have to have laws to protect our most vulnerable,” LePage said in an interview with the Morning Sentinel.
LePage said he, personally, tried to help the Sukeforths retain their home and asked Pine Tree Legal to get involved, but the nonprofit organization that provides free legal help to low-income Mainers determined the foreclosure was done legally. However, LePage said he thinks it is immoral that a veteran and his sick, bedridden wife, who are at the end of their lives, were kicked out of their home and he is going to fight to ensure the practice is prohibited in the future.
“I’m going to ask for an ombudsman to mediate disputes between communities and taxpayers, not just elderly,” LePage said Friday. “I want to change the foreclosure law as it relates to poverty, and one of the things I want to do is force them (communities) to sell property at market value and any revenues above taxes and revenue and foreclosure fees go back to the original owner.”
That the governor would be emotionally moved by the Sukeforth case and plan legislation in response is not surprising, said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“The governor has always taken a very personal reaction to personal stories,” Melcher said. “And it certainly fits into the way this governor has acted. Emotionally, it’s a heart-tugging, how-can-this-happen kind of thing.”
LePage said most communities, before taking ownership for nonpayment of taxes, will work with an owner who could get a reverse mortgage, or the community could abate the taxes. He said he wants people to be able to stay in their homes and let taxes accrue and when they die, the property would then go to the community.
“What they did is unbelievable. It’s just not the way it’s done,” he said of the town of Albion.
A lawyer in LePage’s office tried to arrange a meeting with the man who bought the Sukeforth home, but the new owner refused to do so unless it occurred in his own lawyer’s office with his lawyer present.
The Sukeforths now are living in a trailer park in Holden with their daughter, Yvette Ingalls, where a nurse comes every day to tend to Leonette, who is a retired nurse herself. She is diabetic, weak and fragile and was in a hospital bed prescribed by her doctor when the eviction took place, according to the Sukeforth family.
Rachel Sukeforth, their daughter-in-law, who lives across the street with their son, Rick, said she and her husband drove her in-laws to Holden in a snowstorm the night they were evicted.
“That deal was very underhanded,” Richard Sukeforth said in a phone interview from Holden. “I don’t care what anybody says. It weren’t right. They came down and evicted us when my wife was right in a hospital bed. We’re both 80 years old, so they done it and got away with it and they’re happy.”
LePage, who was mayor of Waterville before he became Maine’s governor, said while it is legal to foreclose on properties, “most people don’t throw them out for poverty.”
“As mayor of Waterville, whenever we had an issue of poverty, we never threw people out,” he said.
The Sukeforths had lived in the house, which really is a camp, 33 years before they were evicted. “He’s living in poverty,” LePage said of Richard Sukeforth. “Now, we’re throwing him out on the street. That’s just awful.”
Meanwhile, the Sukeforth’s brown-and-gray dog, Pee-wee, and black cat, Kitty, are temporarily staying with Rick and Rachel Sukeforth, as the trailer park in Holden does not allow dogs.
Rachel Sukeforth said when she lets the animals out, they go across the road and sit on the steps of what once was Richard and Leonette’s house and whimper.
The animals on Wednesday were wandering around that house in the snow. The dog, a 10-year-old Jack Russell terrier, shivered on the ice-covered dirt road.
Even as Maine’s governor is voicing outrage over the Sukeforth eviction, town officials said the process to get to that point was legal and that Richard Sukeforth had many chances to prevent it.
Albion Selectwoman Beverly Bradstreet said he owed about $4,000 in taxes on the property, which was taxed at a little under $800 a year, not including interest and lien fees.
The town gave Richard Sukeforth, a National Guard and Marine veteran, every opportunity to pay and even paid his taxes for two years, in 2011 and 2012, out of a special fund the town maintains to help people in need, according to Bradstreet.
“It’s three years before we foreclose, and we paid his taxes, like two different years to avoid foreclosure; but then he just let it go,” Bradstreet said. “He knew that we were going to do it. He would come in the Town Office, but he did not pay. I don’t know why. He just waited until it was too late. We foreclosed last December, 2015. We gave him six months to still pay it off and he made no effort to pay it off. He didn’t try, and there were other people in town that could use some help, too.”
She said that, had Sukeforth paid his taxes before December 2015, he would have had to pay only one year’s taxes.
But Rachel Sukeforth said the family did not know her father-in-law, who is in an early stage of dementia, did not pay his taxes; in fact, she would ask him if he had gone to the Town Office to pay and he said he had. It was only when the family saw a notice in the newspaper last summer that there was to be an auction on the property that they learned of the foreclosure, she said.
“As soon as we found this out, we called the Town Office,” she said. “My husband and siblings and our neighbor all tried to pay the taxes up to date, and they refused payment. This wasn’t sitting well with any one of us. Every town has the right to refuse payment, but can also accept the payment as well. When we tried to pay selectmen, they said when an auction is posted in the newspaper, they can no longer accept payment, but that wasn’t true.”
LePage said the town at that point could have accepted the payment. “It’s never too late until the deed transfers, and the deed had not transferred,” he said.
Rachel Sukeforth said the family is trying to have her in-laws’ dog designated as a service dog so they can have it at the Holden trailer park. LePage is concerned about the dog, he said.
“If they need a place for the dog to go, I’ll take him,” he said.
He said he is working to help find the Sukeforths a place to live, such as an assisted-living facility.
Richard Sukeforth said he and his wife receive $1,252 a month in Social Security payments. He worked in construction during the summer for many years, operated a snowplow for the Maine Turnpike in winter and later worked for Bath Iron Works until he was injured when he fell off a crane boom in 1982, he said.
He maintained Marden Shore Road for the road association there for 33 years, for no pay, until the association voted in 2015 to pay him $500 a year. He said he misses his home, his dog and his cat and thinks it was wrong for the town to foreclose on his property and sell it.
His daughter, Ingalls, said her parents were told Dec. 29 that if they were not out of the house by midnight, the doors would be locked and a deputy sheriff called. She said they are upset about losing their home.
“They’re beside themselves, as old as they are,” Ingalls said. “Everything they’ve gone through in their whole lives, and they get thrown out like this.”
FORECLOSURE AND EVICTION
LePage learned of the Albion situation when MaryAnn Sawlan-Neiman, who with her husband, Jim, owns a home three properties away from the Sukeforth’s home, contacted the governor’s office for help. Sawlan-Neiman, who lives most of the year in Dracut, Massachusetts, but is also Albion’s road commissioner, said she did everything she could to help keep the Sukeforths in their home prior to calling LePage’s office.
“It’s just devastating for them,” she said of the couple. “He’s just like a lost man now.”
She said she met the Sukeforths many years ago, as he maintained the private, dirt road for 33 years. The dead-end road off China Road is six-tenths of a mile long.
“Every day, he would come down, stay a couple of hours, and I’d go to his house. We just became really good friends. Another neighbor told me in July they were going to foreclose for taxes. I went to the town hall and I said, ‘What does he owe? I’ll pay for it right now.’”
She said the town refused payment. She said she told town officials she recognized Sukeforth had dementia because her own mother had had Alzheimer’s disease.
“He is a … vet. There’s just so many reasons this shouldn’t be able to happen,” she said.
After she and Sukeforth met Sept. 7 with LePage, she hoped there would be a positive resolution in the case, but that did not happen.
“I truly believe the governor did everything he could to help,” Sawlan-Neiman said. “He’s actually called me to come testify when the bill is ready. I’m very nervous about doing that because I don’t speak well in front of people, but I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Sawlan-Neiman bid $6,000 for the Sukeforth property in August at the sealed-bid auction. But Jason Marks, an electrician whose father, Winston, owns the property next to Richard and Leonette Sukeforth’s camp, bid $6,500; and as the higher bidder, he was awarded the property.
Jason Marks also owns a home on Marden Shore Road and does electrical work for the town of Albion. Sawlan-Neiman said the relationship between Marks and town officials, who are friendly, raises red flags.
“I can’t help but think that this was a setup so Jason could buy the property,” she said.
Both Marks and Bradstreet said that is not true. Bradstreet said she didn’t even know that Jason Marks was bidding on the Sukeforth property. Marks’ father actually brought the envelope with the sealed bid into the Town Office, she said, so town officials thought he was the one seeking to purchase it, not Jason. And while the town does hire Jason Marks to do electrical work, it is because he is the only local electrician available and lives in the town, according to Bradstreet, who said town officials actually were anticipating that Sawlan-Neiman would submit the higher bid so Sukeforth could keep the property.
“There was absolutely nothing underhanded,” Bradstreet said. “We were hoping she would get it.”
Jason Marks said that after he became owner of the Sukeforth property, he could have evicted the Sukeforths by September; but instead, he allowed the couple to stay in the house if they would pay rent.
“He (Richard Sukeforth) refused to pay any rent, and he actually refused to let me clean up the property because my insurance company was giving me a hard time about that,” Marks said.
Marks said he got a call from a lawyer in the governor’s office last year asking to meet with him and LePage, but Marks did not want to meet with them unless he could have his own lawyer at such a meeting.
“I felt uncomfortable with the governor’s lawyer included in this when it originally happened because he mentioned he was going to look into future legislation and the well-being of Richard Sukeforth,” Marks said. “I was wanting to meet with the governor at my lawyer’s office because he was going to have his legal counsel there and said they were looking out for the well-being of Richard Sukeforth; but the deputy legal counsel told me the governor probably would refuse, and I never heard back from them.”
But LePage said he did not ask for lawyers to be present — that he wanted to meet with Marks, one-on-one, to ask if he would let the Sukeforths stay in the house for the rest of their lives.
“I never meet with lawyers,” LePage said Friday. “When I ask for a meeting, it’s me, alone. When I go after corruption, I go after corruption head-on. I don’t need any help.”
Marks said he actually tried to find help for the Sukeforths and called Sen. Susan Collins’ office, which was working to find out what could be done to help the couple. He said he spoke with a woman at that office. “She told me that Richard fell through every crack there is, and my comment to her was it’s too bad that he did work his whole life because if he didn’t work, there would have been benefits for him.”
A message left at Collins’ Augusta office was not returned immediately Friday.
LePage said there are programs to help elderly people, but he did not learn about the situation until after the foreclosure and transfer of the property.
Marks said he felt as if he was being made to feel like a bad person for evicting the Sukeforths and felt pressured by the governor.
“It’s not that I bought the property with the intentions of kicking him out and being done with it,” he said. “I tried doing something along the way to help.”
Both Bradstreet and Marks question how a law would work that would prohibit municipalities from foreclosing on and evicting elderly people who do not pay taxes. Bradstreet wonders if it would place a financial burden on towns. Marks said at some point, a town must foreclose.
“It’s too bad it’s an elderly person, but someone not paying their taxes makes it harder for everyone who does,” Marks said. “Everyone else pays their fair share.”
Marks also wondered why LePage is so invested in the Sukeforth case and said he welcomes LePage to come and look at the camp the Sukeforths lived in, to see the conditions inside, and he would talk to the governor about it.
“It’s not a place I’d want my family to live,” Marks said.
It’s not uncommon for governors or legislators to propose bills based on a single case — usually compelling stories involving matters such as child disappearances or deaths, according to Melcher, the UMF political science professor. Those anecdotes, though, are typically widely known and reported in the media before legislation is brought forward, whereas the Albion case has been known recently only to the people involved, town officials and LePage’s office.
Melcher cautioned against legislation based solely on a single incident.
“One case leading to action is not unusual; but for policy, we should wonder if this is a sign of a bigger problem, or are we reacting to just one thing?” Melcher said. “Sometimes when people get emotional, they make decisions they regret later. It’s good to start an examination based on a single case, but you don’t want to make policy on just one case without looking at all the implications.”
LePage, though, said he knows of other cases like the Sukeforths’.
Meanwhile, Rachel and Rick Sukeforth have been packing up his parents’ belongings and moving them out, little by little, and Marks has been good about them allowing them to do that, Rachel said.
She said she hopes LePage’s efforts to get a bill passed are successful.
“It’s so important to be a voice for the elderly,” she said, “because people just tend to throw them aside like they’re nothing because of their age.”