Jane Sanders, the wife of the Vermont senator and 2016 presidential candidate, has been in the news of late – and not for good reasons. In late April, VTDigger, a non-profit reporting site in Vermont, broke the news that the FBI was potentially conducting an investigation related to her stewardship of Burlington College in the 2000s. No allegations of wrongdoing have been made by authorities against the Sanders.
But after ignoring the story for months, the Sanders have, of late, broken their silence and Jane Sanders has hired a lawyer to assist her in the matter. I reached out to VTDigger’s Morgan True, who has led the pack on the investigation, to better understand the case and just how much trouble Jane Sanders might be in. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start from the beginning. Jane Sanders becomes president of Burlington College in 2004. She was pushed out in 2011. What happened in between?
True: The short answer is “very little,” until 2010, when Sanders comes up with the idea of purchasing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington’s headquarters.
The property sits on more than 30 acres of prime lakefront land near downtown, and Sanders decides she’s going to make it into a new campus for Burlington College. The diocese had to sell in order to pay out priest sex abuse settlements.
Despite Burlington College not having the money or the students for it, Sanders sells her board of trustees on an expansionist vision, saying she will help the school grow into the new campus.
Her plan involves more than doubling enrollment at the tiny alternative college and mounting a massive fundraising campaign, which, when combined, will allow them to pay down the debt required for the purchase.
She spends all of 2010 securing the financing, which came down to the wire, and ultimately required a $500,000 bridge loan from a local real estate magnate whom the Sanders’ are close with.
The $10 million dollar deal goes through in December 2010, with $6.7 million in bonds issued by a public financing agency and backed by People’s United Bank. Another $3.6 million loan came from the diocese, which ultimately lost money settling that loan with the college.
The deal is inked, and Burlington College begins moving into its new campus in 2011. At some point during the next 10 months, the board of trustees loses confidence in Sanders’ vision, but at that point it’s too late – they own the land and are saddled with massive debt.
Sanders’ resignation is negotiated with lawyers. Publicly she cites differences with the trustees. Publicly they say very little, but sources close to situation say doubts emerged about her fundraising plans.
Cillizza: The FBI has been investigating this case for the past 18 months. What do we know about the status of the investigation?
True: To be frank, not much. The FBI has a policy where it does not comment on ongoing investigations, even to confirm their existence. (CNN has reached out to FBI in Albany, New York, and the US Attorney’s office in Vermont and has not received a response.)
What we do know is that shortly after Republican attorney (and Donald Trump’s campaign manager in Vermont) Brady Toensing sent his initial letter to the US Attorney for Vermont and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in January 2016, requesting an investigation into representations Sanders made to obtain the loan from People’s United Bank, a former Burlington College employee says the FBI subpoenaed donor records and communications related to the land purchase.
Emails we obtained through a public records request in April show that as recently as February, an FBI agent was reviewing Burlington College records that ended up in the state of Vermont’s possession after the college shut down.
We also know that federal investigators interviewed two Burlington College donors who told us that they believe Sanders misrepresented their pledges in the loan agreement with the bank. (CNN has not confirmed this reporting.)
Those interviews with federal agents took place at the donors’ Florida homes in the first half of this year.
As for what the feds are doing with the records they subpoenaed and the information gleaned from interviews with at least a half-dozen people who have said publicly they were contacted by investigators – your guess is as good as mine.
Cillizza: This story generated almost no buzz during Sanders’$2 2016 presidential campaign. Why?
True: I’d wager this didn’t gain traction during the Democratic primary because there wasn’t any proof of a probe until this April. Board members did hint at the FBI’s involvement when the school closed in May of ‘16, but there was nothing definitive at that time.
Absent documentation of an FBI probe, it’s likely the national media – which wasn’t suffering from a dearth of political stories to cover – wasn’t interested in wading into a complex story about how pledges were represented in a loan document and whether that amounted to bank fraud.
Information about Jane Sanders’ tenure at Burlington College was included in opposition research done by the Clinton campaign. We know that because of the WikiLeaks dump, but I don’t recall them making any hay with it.
There were also a handful of pundits, mostly on the right, who took shots at Jane for making a deal that put Burlington College on a slow path toward destruction before quickly disembarking with a $200,000 parachute – the severance payment she received after being forced out by the board.
It was painted as hypocritical, given Bernie Sanders’ penchant for railing against the income inequality engendered by Wall Street tycoons, for whom questionably large payouts are routine.
The scale for that criticism never felt quite right to me, but most of the people I speak with who were close to Burlington College lay some or all of the blame for its demise at Jane’s feet.
Cillizza: Bernie and Jane Sanders are now, finally, talking – a little bit – about the case. And Jane is hiring a big-time lawyer. What should we read into that – if anything?
True: Hiring attorneys is in no way an admission of guilt, and no one should read it that way. To me, it seems like a reasonable step for anyone who has just learned they’re being investigated by the FBI.
It does, however, indicate that the Sanders are taking this probe seriously despite the senator’s public remarks downplaying its significance.
(Former Sanders campaign manager) Jeff Weaver said the couple has not been contacted by the feds, and it’s entirely possible that the first actual confirmation the Sanders’ got that the feds had taken Toensing up on his request for an investigation was our reporting in April.
The sources whom I’ve spoken with that were contacted by Sanders’ attorneys, said the calls came shortly after that story broke. The lawyers asked for interviews with those sources to help the legal team better understand the nature of the federal probe. Two of the sources said they declined the request, the other said they talked for a little while about the college’s finances.
It’s certainly a tangible development, and one that the national press has really latched onto. I wasn’t aware until I read the Politico Magazine story that Larry Robbins, Jane Sanders’ lawyer, was Scooter Libby’s attorney. I can see why that would strike some as a salacious detail.
Suddenly this week, reporters from a handful of national outlets are blowing up my phone asking to talk on background about the land deal and the investigation.
It caught me by surprise because that didn’t happen in April when we confirmed the FBI’s involvement.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The most likely outcome of this case is __________.” Now, explain.
True: I struggled with this answer, partly because of how the question is constructed, but honoring that construction, my best guess is “nothing.”
It’s entirely possible that the US Attorney for Vermont is building a loan fraud case against Jane Sanders to present to a grand jury – or is presenting one currently – and if they do, it’s equally possible the jurors will vote to indict.
Handicapping the odds that prosecutors will get to an indictment is difficult. In my opinion, those odds are lower than the odds that the US attorneys in Vermont working on this thing decide they don’t have a case or fail to convince a grand jury of its merit.
That’s partly because when I first interviewed an assistant US attorney about what constitutes loan fraud, he made it clear that the government would have to prove any misrepresentations were intentional.
Proving intent – or what was going on in someone’s head when they did a thing – is really difficult unless that person told people or documented their thinking some other way. If investigators have a smoking gun, it’s hard for me to understand why there hasn’t been an indictment already; remember this started 18 months ago.
Maybe I’m underestimating how long it takes to build a case and go through the grand jury process no matter what the evidence is.
I’m also operating from a dearth of information. For instance, I don’t know if the feds decided to investigate Toensing’s follow-up allegation that Bernie Sanders used his office to pressure People’s United Bank to make the loan.
If they did, and they’ve found evidence to support that allegation, the investigation and any subsequent charges would be totally different than where our reporting has focused. At this point, I’ve seen no evidence that Senator Sanders got involved.
Another possibility, given the FDIC’s involvement, is that the investigation’s target has shifted to People’s United Bank and whether they broke any rules in making the loan – with or without being pressured by Vermont’s junior senator.