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November 20, 2009

State Auditor Answers Questions about DUI, Finances

Salmon In a wide-ranging and at times rambling press conference Friday, State Auditor Tom Salmon addressed a number of personal and public shortcomings that have come to light in recent weeks

He dedicated his Statehouse press conference to "the warrior in all of us."

For 45 minutes, Salmon walked reporters through his political and personal biography, offering his assessment of the state's financial condition and his own private failings along the way. Those include his recent arrest for driving while under the influence, and racking up nearly $30,000 in debt while living in Los Angeles and not repaying it until after he was sworn in as the state's fiscal watchdog.

"What I want to say to Vermonters is, 'I am sorry and I apologize,'" said Salmon. "I screwed up and made a mistake."

To get a sense of the variety of topics, and Salmon's comments, check out my Twitter feed. To read the prepared text of his speech, click here.

Salmon did tackle a few issues head on, including what prompted his own financial struggles, and why he is giving promotions and pay raises in his office while simultaneously calling for state government and unemployed workers to do more with less.

Salmon said a $48,000 stock loss due the collapse of Enron prompted his financial troubles. He also tackled questions about his DUI arrest, which came after a night of drinking with colleagues celebrating promotions and pay raises in the office.

Salmon has taken some heat from state employees, and the public, for giving pay raises when he has been calling for greater fiscal restraint.

Salmon said his office's budget will still be less this year than last year, despite the promotions. He said the employees — other than his deputy, who was promoted to $88,000 a year — were among the lower-paid workers in the office and have been asked to take on more work.

Still, Salmon has been as public as is possible about his DUI arrest. So, why the afternoon press conference?

"People are starving for two things: truth and leadership," he claimed. And, he wants to serve as a model for other state officials to be open and transparent with the public, he added.

Salmon also said this would be the last time he publicly addresses his DUI arrest before his December 3 court hearing. Given his proclivity for talking to the media, that may be a tall order.

"After this press conference is over, I'm going back to the office and do the work I was elected to do," said Salmon.

Two staffers were on hand for the press conference, including Deputy Auditor Joe Juhasz, who handed out material to the media. Another staffer videotaped the event, which Salmon told reporters he would likely post on his office website.

Also taping the event were staffers from the Vermont Democratic Party.

Gee, wonder why they were there?

When he took questions from reporters, most centered on the DUI arrest and its impact on him personally and politically.

To recap: On Friday night, Salmon took three employees and their spouses out for dinner to celebrate two promotions and one pay grade increase. Salmon paid for the dinners himself, though he has refused to say where the dinner took place.

On his way home he was stopped by Vermont State Police after failing to put on his turn signal while making a right-hand turn onto Towne Hill Road in Montpelier. When asked by police, Salmon said he had been drinking red wine, and was found to have a blood alcohol content of .086. The legal BAC limit in Vermont is .08.

At the press conference, Salmon told reporters that, in fact, he believed he had five drinks: three glasses of red wine, one scotch before dinner and one coffee drink (with alcohol) after dinner.

Salmon said he does not intend to seek alcohol counseling, nor counseling for anger management. Several times during the press conference, he talked about his anger and frustration after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq — namely, over what he said was an apparent lack of concern or understanding about the "financial tsunami" facing the state.

Salmon also provided documents to reporters explaining what prompted a personal financial tsunami for the auditor when he was living in Los Angeles with his wife and children in the 1990s.

As "Fair Game" reported last week, in 2002, before he left Los Angeles to return to Vermont, Salmon was sued for failing to repay nearly $30,000 to his credit union and two credit card companies. In L.A., he worked as an English teacher and part-time accountant.

According to court records, Salmon took out a $20,000 loan in 1999 from the California Credit Union to help pay off four credit card balances totaling nearly $23,000. He defaulted on that loan just three years later and stopped making payments on two credit cards.

In 2001, however, his financial fortunes took a turn for the worse. In late 2001 he lost $48,000 in the span of three weeks — from just before Thanksgiving to the middle of December — due to stock he held in Enron. Salmon produced a letter Friday from the accounting firm he worked for that vouched for the stock loss, along with an IRS form filed for FY 2001.

When he was sued in 2002, Salmon owed about $12,225 to the credit union, as well as $12,200 on one credit card and $5000 on another. Total balance due: roughly $29,000. Creditors also sought damages to cover court costs and legal fees.

"We fell behind," said Salmon on Friday. "It was a difficult road, but it made me the person I am today."

Salmon paid off those debts by early 2007, just after he was sworn in as state auditor. As a Democrat. Earlier this year, Salmon, the son of Democratic Governor Tom Salmon, jumped ship and became a Republican.

"I did not leave the Democratic Party," said Salmon back in September. "The party left me and tens of thousands of others in a reunion with the Progressive Party."

Salmon said his defection from the party, and recent statements directed at unemployed workers during a legislative hearing, were founded in "passion," not anger.

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