MONTPELIER — State Auditor Tom Salmon Jr., the man Vermonters chose to be their official government watchdog, is at the center of a lawsuit filed by a former political ally and appointed assistant alleging inner-office deception, recklessness and malice. The case was dismissed last month in Lamoille County Superior Court, but the plaintiff has appealed. The charges, which Salmon refuses to answer, pose troubling questions about the first-term politico's early days at the helm of one of the state's highest offices.
Morristown resident Matthew Burgess, 45, says Salmon "betrayed" him in the dawn of his two-year term, which drove Burgess to sue the man he had long considered a family friend. Burgess — who started work as Salmon's administrative assistant January 29 and was unceremoniously fired just two weeks later — claims the way the auditor handled his dismissal was not only illegal, but it paints an unflattering picture of how the son of a former Vermont governor does business.
"I was shocked. I was hurt," Burgess says of the firing, which he attributes to his "political profile" — he's active in the Vermont Democratic Party. He also suspects Salmon may have overextended his budget by hiring him. Burgess claims, "I ended up being punished and damaged because of his irresponsible actions."
Salmon describes the firing more simply. He says there was no "ill will" involved in the decision to ax Burgess, and that there was "no negative slant to his performance . . . It just wasn't a right fit," he says.
The civil suit hinges on the details of Burgess' termination — he alleges breach of contract as well as gross negligence and willful misconduct. But what is potentially more damaging to Salmon's reputation are the revelations of unscrupulous inner-office dealings in the days preceding Burgess' official hiring.
According to evidence cited in the lawsuit, Burgess informed Salmon via email January 10 that he had quit his job at Ultramar Energy Inc., a heating oil distributor, in Morristown to take a job in Salmon's office, as the two men had discussed in a previous meeting. In an email response to Burgess later that day, Salmon asked Burgess to keep the news "on the down low." The email continues, "Please realize that I need to announce this hire after a process has been sought. Right now, our budget is a sensitive issue because its [sic] over . . . You have to understand this place just went through an emotional roller coaster — not just the election."
In the same email, Salmon requests that Burgess meet with three members of his office for an interview. "You will be done by [noon] and we will follow up accordingly outside the office," it reads. "I want the staff to feel involved in your hiring, so you are doing me a favor by spending time with these [three] folks, and allowing the process to roll out with deliberation. (Also, we need to say we interviewed a woman for your position) . . ."
"He wanted to make the appearance that I was not already hired," says Burgess.
While Salmon acknowledges the seriousness of the charges, he refuses to comment. "I'm unafraid of any issue, or any person, but this is in the legal realm, so I am bound more so to silence," he says.
Burgess says Salmon's handling of his hiring was the first of many deceptions by the auditor during the brief period they worked together. "It was the first time I became aware that Tom was not being totally candid with me about the other people in the office," says Burgess. "He's the auditor of the State of Vermont. What are these games he's playing with his staff?"
Despite the "games" he observed, Burgess remained interested in the $42,000-a-year job. He interviewed with Salmon staffers and, according to the lawsuit, received an email from Salmon January 12. "You proved yourself a loyal and determined soldier," the email reads. "Enjoy the weekend, and MLK day. He knew what mattered."
"I trusted him," says Burgess.
On January 23, Burgess received an invitation to join Salmon's staff. The letter, printed on the state auditor's letterhead and signed by Salmon, outlined his salary and vacation time. At the bottom was a handwritten message: "Let the games begin!"
"I didn't think for a minute he was playing these games with me," says Burgess.
Ten days later, Burgess was on the job when he reportedly received another email from Salmon expressing concern over "a disturbing rumor" that Burgess had been describing himself as Salmon's "political advisor" — a claim Burgess denies to this day. One week later, Burgess says he was ushered into Salmon's office and fired because he was "overqualified" and had "too high a political profile." Burgess says he pleaded with Salmon to explain the firing further, or where the rumors originated, but received no more information from the auditor.
Was the dismissal against the law? Not according to Superior Court Judge Dennis R. Pearson. Last month, Pearson found Salmon's hiring and firing practices to be "deeply unfortunate, and in some ways unfair," but nonetheless legal.
Burgess — who filed an appeal on October 12 — says his family was thrown into financial and emotional turmoil after he was unexpectedly let go. His wife, Lili, was devastated as the family scrambled to make ends meet with three children. Further, the couple had debated the new job for weeks, weighing the pros and cons of Salmon's offer. Burgess had always wanted to be part of the Montpelier scene and play a role in state government. With that in mind, the Burgesses decided to take the plunge. "We understood in our calculations that this might only be for two years," says Burgess. "We never would have, in our wildest dreams, thought it would have been two weeks."
Burgess did qualify for unemployment after getting fired, but says the compensation didn't come close to his former pay. Eventually, Ultramar hired him back.
What makes the squabble more than a political appointment gone awry? Both men hail from prominent Democratic families. Salmon's father, Tom Salmon Sr., had been governor, then president of the University of Vermont. Burgess' father, John, was Bennington County State's Attorney before the elder Salmon appointed him to the Public Service Board. It was because of this "familial connection," as Burgess describes it, that he went to work for the Salmon campaign in the summer of 2006, when "Tom had an uphill battle."
Burgess is the Lamoille County Democratic Committee treasurer as well as Morristown Democratic Town Committee chairman — political positions he gave up in order to work in Salmon's office, and later regained. In the fall last year, Burgess says he pulled some strings to get Salmon onto the podium to speak at the Vermont Democratic State Committee Platform Convention in Barre. Salmon might not be in office today, Burgess says, if not for the political support of his family.
Salmon won one of the tightest races in Vermont history when he defeated Republican incumbent Randy Brock by just 102 votes after a recount of more than 250,000 ballots. And it was the first statewide election in Green Mountain history to be overturned by a recount.
Burgess says his family hit the streets in support of Salmon throughout the campaign, and that "a large percentage of what put him over the top came from Lamoille County." The outpouring of support was "the kind of thing you would do for any friend of the family," says Burgess.
Salmon sees it differently. "It's a personnel matter, it's not a history lesson." And if the allegations in the lawsuit are a potential political liability, Salmon doesn't seem worried. "Politics is not a game for sissies, and if somebody's not mad at you every week, you better pack it up and go home," he says. Salmon called back later and asked to change the word "sissy" to "milquetoast."