ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – Volusia County Property Appraiser Morgan Gilreath is investigating a possible homestead exemption violation here that involves the wife of a gubernatorial candidate in Maine.
Gilreath is attempting to discover if Ann LePage, wife of Maine’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, has illegally claimed a tax exemption when she already had one for property she owns in Maine. The subject has become a hot campaign issue with wide media coverage in Maine.
“We received a message through an anonymous e-mail two days ago that it was something we might check into. I also talked to a reporter identifying himself (as) being from Maine,” Gilreath said. “We don’t automatically take a newspaper story; we open an investigation.”
In a heated news conference in Augusta, Maine, on Monday, — broadcast now on several Youtube sites, candidate Paul LePage walked out when reporters questioned him about the issue, but not before saying, “The house in Florida my mother-in-law bought and we helped her, end of story.”
According to Volusia County records, Ann LePage bought a 1,624-square-foot house at 558 Woodgrove St. in the Sandy Oaks Subdivision for $168,000 from three owners Dec. 22, 2008, Gilreath said.
A Penny Saver newspaper sat on the driveway at that house Wednesday and Thursday, but windows were dark and no one answered the door. A neighbor said she has seen people at the house but didn’t know them and wouldn’t answer questions.
Ann LePage signed the application for a $50,000 homestead exemption on Jan. 20, 2009, which states in the fine print that any person giving false information for the purpose of claiming a homestead exemption is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, Gilreath said.
Punishment could include a year in prison or a $5,000 fine, or both, according to the document.
In Waterville, Kennebec County, Maine, LePage owns homesteaded property at 438 Main St. She acquired sole title there in 1998 after buying the property with Paul in 1995, according to an Associated Press report.
“Our process is, we go through a level of investigation — I have two investigators,” Gilreath said. In the past four years, his unit has brought in more than $11 million in revenue from people not homestead-qualified.
If LePage is deemed in violation, Gilreath’s office will send a letter giving 30 days to respond with reasons why the homestead is valid, Gilreath said.
A lien is placed on the property if there is no response or repayment. People usually pay up, and it’s expensive, Gilreath said. In addition to back taxes for up to 10 years, violators pay 15 percent interest per year on the delinquency, plus 50 percent of the back taxes as a penalty.
Criminal prosecution is rare, Gilreath said. “The interest keeps accruing, and the property can’t be sold, but there’s no mechanism to have the property go up for sale,” he said.
LePage did not respond to a phone message left by The News-Journal at her Waterville phone Thursday. Also Thursday, a spokeswoman at Paul LePage’s campaign office in Maine said “there is no one who can speak” on the issue.
In interviews with Maine media, LePage has acknowledged that his wife received the resident-only exemptions in both states but said it was an innocent mistake because Ann LePage had forgotten she applied for the Homestead program in Maine more than a decade ago. He also said earlier this week that the couple is notifying tax officials in both states that they will not seek a Homestead exemption on either home going forward.
LePage said his wife had rented a residence in Florida for several years to help care for her ailing mother but purchased the home after real estate prices plummeted. Ann LePage and her mother live part of the year in Maine but spend the colder months in Florida.
Story courtesy of The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Bangor Daily News reporter Kevin Miller contributed to this report.