There have been leaks about a federal investigation into the collapse of Burlington College since last May and in June Jane Sanders hired an attorney. However, this week a site which has been at the forefront of coverage of this story claims a grand jury has compelled testimony in the case from at least one witness. If accurate, it would be the first time anyone has confirmed a grand jury is taking testimony in the case. The site VT Digger reports:
The Vermont U.S. Attorney’s office has interviewed at least one witness before the grand jury to determine whether indictments should be handed down.
Former Burlington College board member Robin Lloyd says she testified for about an hour on Oct. 26 before a grand jury at the federal courthouse in Burlington.
Paul Van de Graaf, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney’s office in Vermont, questioned Lloyd about her role as the development chair of the college’s board of trustees during a period when Sanders was collecting donations and pledges for the purchase of a $10 million city lakefront property.
Lloyd, who is publisher of the progressive website Toward Freedom, kept copious board meeting minutes as the development chair for the college. In the interview with Van de Graaf, Lloyd said he “was focused on what I knew about who had been approached for contributions.”
“I helped provide a timeline of what happened — and when — in terms of development,” Lloyd said. “It was general questions about donors, and money coming in.”
A spokesman for the Sanders family has already disputed the VT Digger account, telling Seven Days VT, “We have absolutely no reason to believe that there is a grand jury empaneled to examine Burlington College, Jane Sanders, or any aspect of Dr. Sanders’ service as president of Burlington College.” The spokesman added, “As best we can tell, the current news reports are simply recycling an account of a government interview of a witness from several months ago. Nothing new here.” However, Seven Days VT also spoke to Robin Lloyd and she confirmed she had testified before a grand jury after refusing to speak with the FBI without an attorney.
“The first time two FBI guys came around I said I would only talk to them with my lawyer,” Lloyd said. “Of course, I didn’t have a lawyer at that point. So I did get a lawyer, but I didn’t call them back. So then the next visit was this subpoena to appear before the grand jury.”
Lloyd said she and her attorney, Charlotte Dennett, met with Van de Graaf and then appeared before a grand jury on Thursday, October 26 — roughly two weeks after the FBI agents showed up at her door.
She told Seven Days she was not sure whether prosecutors had empaneled a grand jury specifically to hear evidence in the Burlington College matter, as VTDigger reported. A standing grand jury meets most Thursdays in the Burlington courthouse and can be used to gather evidence and interview witnesses in ongoing investigations.
VT Digger clarified its story to note that the grand jury in question may have been the standing grand jury and not one specifically empaneled to gather information on the Burlington College case.
If you’ve missed the backstory on this, Sanders took over a small liberal arts college in 2004 and began planning for a big expansion. But her plans didn’t seem to work out. In fact, she wound up driving off about two dozen members of the faculty who didn’t like her management style. As the staff and number of students shrank to just over 150 students, Sanders kept daydreaming about moving the school from a converted grocery store to a piece of prime real estate along Lake Champlain. From Politico:
In 2010, she put forward a plan to move the underfunded, minuscule school to 33 acres of valuable real estate along Lake Champlain, north of Burlington’s downtown. “It was the last piece of undeveloped, prime property on the lake shore,” says Guma.
For Sanders, it was a chance to secure her legacy.
The local Roman Catholic Diocese owned the acreage and was looking to sell. It had recently settled more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits for $17.76 million and needed cash. The property went on the market for $12.5 million. The Diocese took Burlington College’s offer of $10 million, which seemed to be a bargain.
But the college was nearly broke. Its annual budget hovered just below $4 million. Even at a discounted rate, the land would be an extravagant purchase. Yet Sanders was able to craft a complex set of deals to finance the acquisition.
Jane Sanders completed the purchase but the school didn’t have the money it needed to convert the land to proper classrooms. A few weeks after classes commenced in the unfinished campus, Sanders was kicked out by the college’s board. The school struggled on for five more years, selling off parts of the property it has purchased to stay afloat. Finally in 2016, in the midst of Bernie Sanders’ run for president, Burlington College collapsed.
Bernie Sanders implausibly claimed last year that his wife had left the school in better shape than she found it saying, “When she came to that college it was failing financially and academically. When she left it, it was in better shape than it had ever been.” But several reports suggest that the school’s debt was a major factor in eventually putting it out of business. The fact that a grand jury was involved in gathering testimony just a couple months ago suggests the investigation is still actively at work behind the scenes.