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March 20, 2013

Media Note: Shumlin Whacks Associated Press Report at Press Conference

Shumlin.Spaulding.032013Upset by an Associated Press account of alleged cost overruns in the relocation of a state agency, Gov. Peter Shumlin ripped into the story Wednesday during his weekly press conference.

"Let me just say every once in a while there is something that is printed that isn't true," Shumlin said. "And that story is not true."

AP Statehouse reporter Dave Gram wrote Monday that members of a House committee were told last year that the Agency of Natural Resources' move to the National Life building in Montpelier would cost roughly $2 million. Recent estimates peg the cost of relocation and renovation at closer to $8.7 million — $3.5 million of which would be covered by National Life.

But according to Shumlin, that original estimate was never uttered by his administration.

"We never said that it would cost $2 million," Shumlin said at the press conference, which was attended by Gram. "I don't know where that number came from. I don't deny it might've been said to the committee, but all I can tell you is it wasn't said by us."

Clearly prepared for the push-back, Shumlin then summoned Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding (pictured above at right with Shumlin) to the podium to deliver a blow-by-blow account of the state's cost estimates. Spaulding said the administration's earliest expectations last spring ranged from $6 to $10 million. A written estimate provided to the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions in July pegged it at $7.5 million, he said.

"If there had been a cost overrun from $2 million to $8.6 million, people would have a right to be outraged, but that's not what happened," Spaulding told reporters. "We ended up putting in place the most cost-effective solution we could possibly get our hands on."

He added, "I think this is a good news story."

Unable to let it go, Shumlin jumped back in to address the subject and dispute Gram's account three more times — even after a reporter had changed the subject. He concluded by summoning his best impression of a guest lecturer at journalism school.

"And I just want to close by saying as a lesson for the future, as kindly as I can say this: Meet Sue Allen," Shumlin said, referring to his spokeswoman and deputy chief of staff. "If you have a question about a story, call Sue Allen. We will get you the answers so at least we weigh in on our perspectives, because in a case like this our perspective matters, since we did the talking and we spent the money."

As reporters filed out of the governor's ceremonial office, Shumlin's chief of staff, Elizabeth Miller, walked over to Gram and said, "Sorry about that."

In an interview after the press conference, Spaulding said the administration had two chief complaints: He said Gram overstated the luxury of ANR's new office space and said the reporter never called the governor's office to confirm the $2 million figure. Spaulding conceded that Gram had, in fact, spoken with representatives from the Department of Buildings and General Services, which reports to the secretary.

Spaulding said he contacted Gram to refute elements of the story as soon as a brief version of it ran Monday afternoon. A subsequent, longer version included quotations from Spaulding disputing its thesis.

So did Gram get it wrong?

The reporter himself said he couldn't comment on the story, other than to say that the AP was sticking by it.

According to Buildings and General Services Commissioner Mike Obuchowski, his staff has "no recollection" of providing the $2 million figure to the House Institutions committee.

But several committee members defended Gram, saying that BGS representatives had given them such an estimate, though they said it was clear to all that the number was "fluid."

"The two million was an estimate, a very broad estimate. We knew it wouldn't stay at $2 million," said committee chairwoman Alice Emmons (D-Springfield). "Everyone was doing their best guess estimate from a 10,000 foot level."

Said Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), "During the session, the number that we were talking about was that $2 million."

Emmons and Hooper said they were neither surprised nor alarmed that as the scope of the project expanded, so did its cost.

"From what we had talked about during the legislative session to what it is today, yeah, that was a big change, but as [Emmons] has described it, we see how it evolved and why it became what it did," Hooper said. "So I think the AP story correctly reported that portion of the discussion."

While Gram couldn't comment on the kerfuffle, he did end up covering it — writing in a news brief after the presser that the governor was "disputing lawmakers' recollections of what they were told" about the move's cost. He also noted that committee members "continue to say they got early estimates" of $2 million.

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