Did Jane Sanders commit fraud in a land deal involving Burlington College in 2010? Questions about the role that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wife played in the collapse of the school have percolated for over a year, and two months ago the website VTDigger and Washington Post reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into the failure. Today, the Post’s Shawn Boburg and Jack Gillum report that the investigation has “accelerated in recent months” — but what precisely does that portend?
A half-dozen people said in interviews in recent days that they had been contacted by the FBI or federal prosecutors, and former college trustees told The Washington Post that lawyers representing Jane Sanders had interviewed them to learn what potential witnesses might tell the government. …
The investigation began in early 2016 after Brady Toensing, a lawyer who was the state chairman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, wrote to the U.S. attorney and federal bank regulators, alleging potential bank fraud. FBI agents conducted interviews last year, but the probe was not publicly confirmed until this April, when the local news outlet VTDigger.org reported that a federal prosecutor had asked that records from the college be preserved.
Last week, an attorney for the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency, which helped the college get financing, told The Post that its executive director was asked to testify before a grand jury in April. That is the first public confirmation that prosecutors have sought to present evidence to a grand jury.
Paul J. Van de Graaf, chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney’s office in Vermont, cited an ongoing investigation in declining to comment on the case or on the claim that it is politically motivated. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
Boburg and Gillum provide a lengthy and informative backgrounder to the scandal, assuming that it is a scandal. It didn’t do much to dent Bernie’s campaign momentum, which peaked at about the time it first emerged but didn’t get a lot of play in the media until afterward. In part that’s because the issue doesn’t involve Bernie, even indirectly. There has been no allegation that his senatorial connections were exploited to drive the loan or the decision by Burlington to sign onto the purchase of the land that led to its collapse.
It was clearly a bad business decision on Burlington’s part under Sanders’ leadership, but the question is whether it amounts to a crime. The complaint alleged that she deceptively claimed to have “confirmed” donations of over $2 million from contributors in order to (a) get the board to agree to the purchase, and (b) get a loan from the bank with help from a government agency. In the end, the school only got $125,000 from donors, and more than one informed the school that they had never committed to larger amounts.
Jane Sanders continues to deny any wrongdoing through her attorneys and spokespeople, but the circumstances of the collapse seem suspicious. But then so too did the way that the failure first came to the attention of investigators — through an official of the Donald Trump campaign, Brady Toensing. That allowed Sanders and her defenders to claim that the controversy was nothing more than a campaign attack on Bernie Sanders through his wife.
If the probe is still going on, though, the FBI must at least consider the question worthy of serious scrutiny. But what does it mean to say that it’s “accelerated in recent months”? The news of a grand jury — which has been known for some time now — seems more indicative of the serious nature of the investigation. It might just be that the FBI wants to finish up its work to hand it off to the Department of Justice for its review, and that they have explored all of the nooks and crannies of the case. Mostly, it suggests that we will hear something sooner rather than later as to whether any of this amounts to criminal activity, or just really bad judgment on the part of Jane Sanders.