AUGUSTA — Eighty-year-old Richard Sukeforth sat in the Cabinet room near Gov. Paul LePage’s office Tuesday night, nibbling on a tiny crabmeat sandwich and a deviled egg and sipping yellow punch from a fancy glass cup.

The Albion man who lost his home to foreclosure and eviction seemed a little out of place amid the grandeur of the room — and he conceded that point.

“This is unusual,” he said. “I don’t very often get an invitation to anything. I worked around this building in the 1960s, but I never got inside. I did hot-topping, back when they were enlarging the parking lot.”

Sukeforth, his silver cane at his side, said he was grateful and humbled to be invited to the reception before the governor’s State of the State address, in which LePage touted his efforts to help the state’s elderly and impoverished residents. LePage had tried to help Sukeforth get his house back after the foreclosure, but to no avail.

The town of Albion in December 2015 foreclosed on Sukeforth‘s home, and the town sold the house in a sealed-bid auction. The new owner had bid $6,500 on the property — just $500 more than a Sukeforth family friend offered — and then on Dec. 29, 2016, that owner evicted Sukeforth and his wife, Leonette, also 80, as she lay sick in a hospital bed in the home.

Richard Sukeforth was invited to attend the State of State address on Tuesday in the Maine State House in Augusta. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan/Staff Photographer) Staff photo by Joe Phelan

LePage told the Sukeforths’ story in his address Tuesday in the company of Richard Sukeforth and his daughter, Yvette Ingalls, who drove him to the Capitol in a snowstorm from Holden, where the Sukeforths have lived with her in a mobile home since the eviction. Leonette Sukeforth, who suffers from diabetes and other health problems, was not well enough to attend the event, according to her daughter.

Incensed by what happened to the Sukeforths, LePage will be proposing legislation to prohibit municipalities from foreclosing in such cases, and the bill probably will go before the Legislature within the next few weeks. His bill would require steps to be taken by a municipality before foreclosure such as discussing a reverse mortgage, tax abatement or an agreement through which, if the homeowner has no mortgage, the municipality applies a lien on the property for taxes owed, lets the people live in the house until they die and then sells it.

Richard Sukeforth said before guests arrived in the Cabinet room for the reception that he misses his house of 34 years and thinks Albion officials did him a bad turn when they took it. He said he is touched by the governor’s support and while it is too late for him, perhaps LePage’s bill will help prevent others from meeting the same fate.

“That’s one of them deeds that was done underhanded,” Sukeforth said. “Somebody’s got to protect people a little bit. If he can help, it’s probably going to be good for the average person. You know, if it happened to me, it will happen again to somebody else. The town took a law and turned it around to suit themselves. I happened to be the turkey in the fence there, so I was easy pickings. But what comes around goes around.”

Sukeforth and his daughter were the first to arrive in the Cabinet room, and after several minutes, it started to fill up with those who would attend the governor’s State of the State.

As LePage crossed the lobby to the reception, he told the Morning Sentinel that, after the Sukeforths were foreclosed on and evicted, state officials researched Richard Sukeforth’s situation and discovered he was due a small military pension of about $1,200 that he had never been given, and now he is getting it. The governor said that money would have helped Sukeforth stay in his home. The governor also said he planned to talk about the elderly during his State of the State address.

“My speech tonight is very, very heavy for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill, and it’s all about ‘Do no harm,'” he said. “They’re our biggest constituents and we can’t harm them. We’re just doing a terrible, terrible job.”

The Sukeforth foreclosure and eviction has become an issue with implications across Maine as the governor seized on the matter as a symbol of the need for government to look out for the state’s elderly and impoverished residents. The case has exposed tension between a town or city’s need to collect taxes and the ability of officials to work with residents before seeking home foreclosure.

At a town hall-style forum Jan. 25 attended by 150-plus people at Biddeford Middle School, LePage responded to an audience question about the Albion foreclosure by suggesting the town may have retaliated improperly against Richard Sukeforth. “I’m sorry, but that’s not who we are as people,” said LePage, who was mayor of Waterville before becoming governor.

This pet dog named Pee-wee, owned by Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, remained vigilant outside their former home on Lovejoy Pond in Albion on Jan. 4. The Sukeforths, who now reside in Holden with their daughter, were recently evicted from their home after nonpayment of taxes. Staff file photo by David Leaming

By all accounts, the Albion foreclosure was done legally, but LePage maintains it was unethical. The rundown house, located at 180 Marden Shore Road on Lovejoy Pond off China Road, is essentially a small camp. When a Sukeforth neighbor tried to buy the property back for the couple after the foreclosure, town officials denied the request.

Albion, in Kennebec County, had never foreclosed on properties before three years ago, and the Sukeforth foreclosure was the first in which people were actually living in the house at the time of foreclosure, according to Albion Town Clerk Amanda Dow.

Dow said the town had to follow foreclosure laws, and Albion has a provision that allows a person to pay his or her taxes in full six months after automatic foreclosure; but Richard Sukeforth, a National Guard and Marine veteran, did not do that. Dow said the town sent a letter and a selectman went to visit him and explained the process, but he still did not take action.

Family members say they think it is because he is in the early stages of dementia, and had they known he had not paid his taxes, they would have done so.

After the first story about the Sukeforth case was published in the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Maine Sunday Telegram on Jan. 8, LePage said he learned of a dozen similar situations around the state in which elderly people have been forced from their homes; and primarily, they are people who owned their homes.

LePage had been working on trying to find assisted living care for the Sukeforths, but their daughter, Ingalls, said that at this point she thinks it would be best for them to continue to live with her. They will have been married 58 years in May, she said.

The state pays for a home health aide to come in from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to care for her mother, who is weak and becomes dizzy often, Ingalls said. She said she thinks her mother’s spirits are better than they were after she was evicted from her home because she is around family in a warm home where she is fed three meals a day.

The trailer park where the Sukeforths live with their daughter prohibits dogs, so the Sukeforths were not able to take their old brown-and-gray Jack Russell Terrier, Pee-wee, to live with them when they were evicted. Richard Sukeforth was devastated to lose the company of the dog, and just a few days ago, his doctor at Togus wrote a letter designating the dog as a “comfort dog,” which will now allow the couple to have him after all.

Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, both 80 years old, on Jan. 5, now live in Holden with their daughter Yvette Ingalls after they were evicted from their home in Albion after nonpayment of taxes. Staff file photo by David Leaming

Ingalls said that on Thursday, she probably will go to Albion to get the dog, which has been staying with her brother, Rick Sukeforth, and his wife, Rachel, since the eviction.

Ingalls said LePage called her father’s doctor to support the family’s efforts to get the dog back.

“Dad’s doctor told me, ‘I’ve had a lot of calls in my life, but never from the governor,'” she recalled.

On Tuesday night, Sukeforth said he said he is anxious to see his dog again.

“The doctor called me today. He said he was surprised to have the governor call. I’ve had my dog since he was born. He was born at my place. Come June, he’ll be 17.”

Sukeforth said his wife is doing OK but it is difficult for her to get around, though she does so a little bit with a walker inside the trailer but never leaves home. Ingalls, who lost her husband a year ago and had just adjusted to living alone, said she welcomes her parents, though it has been another adjustment.

“My parents seem to be adjusting,” said Ingalls, a cook at a rehabilitation center. “It’s a big change, but I’m content, knowing they’re being taken care of.”

She said she is thankful LePage is working to ensure others do not lose their homes.

“Sometimes, one of the best things in the world is knowing someone cares,” she said.

When LePage walked into the reception, he greeted Sukeforth before anyone else.

“It’s great to see you,” the governor told him.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17