Updated: On Jane Sanders and the FBI/DOJ Investigations of Burlington College

Note:This post was updated at 7.30 blog time to reflect new information suggesting Jane Sanders is under direct investigation.

Yesterday, the Vermont Digger broke the news that Burlington College has been under investigation in the last year by both the Department of Justice and the FBI. The investigations appear to be related to financial misdoings which occurred while Jane Sanders was president of the institution. The Vermont Digger filed a public records request to see emails related to the probe, and has also interviewed several people familiar with the investigations. As Morgan True writes:

[Yves] Bradley, the board chair, said Thursday that he was aware of an FBI investigation into Burlington College for more than a year. He said he and other board members were informed of the inquiry by Coralee Holm, who was at that time dean of operations and advancement.

Holm and others connected to the college were subpoenaed by the FBI, according to Bradley. Agents told Holm she could inform the board of trustees that an investigation was taking place, but she was directed not to provide any further information, Bradley said.

Bradley, the board chair, said he has no information about what the FBI is investigating. Still, he speculated that the probe indeed relates to the school’s purchase of its former North Avenue campus. “At the end of the day, it’s got to relate back to the purchase of the land by the college,” he said.

[Board Member Tom] Torti said he too suspected, based on “rumors” he had heard, that the investigation related to the 2010 purchase of the Burlington College campus.

Asked to describe the rumors, Torti said they related to “the purchase of Burlington College and how the money came about, going back to what a lot of us scratched our heads about who came to the board after (the purchase), which was what were they thinking and how did this all make sense financially.”

The land purchase in question is the purchase of 33 acres on Lake Champlain, formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Burlington. As president of Burlington College, Jane Sanders spearheaded a push to buy the property via a $6.7 million dollar loan. In September of 2015, the Vermont Digger brought to light that Sanders obtained this loan by seriously misrepresenting the college’s finances. Morgan True again:

Sanders told People’s United Bank that the college had $2.6 million in pledged donations to support the purchase of the former Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington property on North Avenue. The college, however, received only $676,000 in actual donations from 2010 through 2014, according to figures provided by Burlington College.

That’s far less than the $5 million Sanders listed as likely pledges in the loan agreement, and less than a third of the $2.14 million Sanders had promised People’s Bank the college would collect in cash during the four-year period.

Two people whose pledges are listed as confirmed in the loan agreement told VTDigger that their personal financial records show their pledges were overstated. Neither were aware that the pledges were used to secure the loan.

This reporting helped prompt a complaint by Vermont Republican Party Vice-Chair Brady Toensing, who in January 2016 demanded a federal investigation into the finances of the college. When Burlington College closed its doors suddenly in May of 2016, a good deal of blame swirled around Jane Sanders and the misrepresentations in the loan arrangements.

I have, as you can imagine, a few thoughts about this.

First, none of this unfolding story has been a surprise to me. In June of 2015, as I was writing Looking For Bernie, I ran across lots of local newspaper stuff about Burlington College and Jane. I didn’t include any of it, for the simple reason that husbands and wives are different people. While Bernie and Jane have collaborated in his political life, I couldn’t see that he played any role in her professional life as an academic administrator. Had Jane Sanders emerged as his major advisor on higher education policy, or if she’d written his free college plan, things would be different. As far as I could tell, that was never the case. Furthermore, until the story came out in January 2016 about her misrepresentation of financial records, this looked to me more like a case of poor judgement, not any wrongdoing.

My goal was an intersectional feminist critique of Bernie Sanders’ record, not a smear of his family, or a vetting of his overall political viability. The latter was the job of professional journalists, very few of whom evinced interest in a deep investigation into Bernie Sanders and his family’s background. So be it.

As time went on, I saw plenty of signs that the GOP was preparing to attack Jane Sanders over her time at Burlington College. Had Bernie won the nomination, they were laying the groundwork for a major scandal, especially after it had been run through the Breitbart/InfoWars propaganda machines.

Brady Toensing’s complaint was one tipoff. While legitimate enough on its face, Toensing was clearly acting more as a Republican agent than an outraged citizen. Brady Toensing is also the son and law partner of Victoria Toensing, a notorious anti-Democratic lawyer who has been involved in nuisance legal actions against both Bill and Hillary Clinton. And just a few days before his initial complaint in January, the right-wing Freebeacon published a story alleging that Jane Sanders had improperly funneled college money to her daughter via engaging her Vermont Woodworking School on behalf of the college, and to a family friend via a study abroad program to his Caribbean resort. Explosive, but very thinly-sourced. It was pretty clear, though, that the GOP smear machine was gearing up in January to make Jane Sanders a campaign issue if Bernie got the nomination.

I will also note in passing that someone who did not touch this story was Hillary Clinton. I am willing to stand corrected, but I don’t think the words “Burlington College” ever passed her lips. Nor did Bill Clinton attack Jane. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but certainly they both know how shitty it is to have one’s family smeared for things unconnected to the candidate’s own record.

Second, I will note that there is still a lot unclear about this. It seems pretty clear that Burlington College’s finances are under some kind of serious investigation. Considering the role of Jane Sanders in its collapse, and her misleading representation of the college’s finances on a loan application, she is likely involved. But it isn’t an investigation of Jane Sanders personally. It’s of Burlington College. See below for update. And, from what I have read in the local press, there is plenty of blame to go around. It sounds like Burlington College was a bit of a mess both before and after Jane Sanders’ tenure. It’s also not clear what, if any, connection there is to Bernie Sanders. Although Brady Toensing alleges Jane somehow used her position as a Senator’s wife to put pressure on the bank, I’m not sure I consider him the most reliable witness.

All of the above is to establish: 1. That it is Burlington under investigation; According to new information reported by independent newspaper Seven Days it appears that Jane Sanders, not the college, is under investigation. Update at end of post. 2. That Jane's role there may be further investigated, but she has been neither charged nor convicted of anything; 3. That Bernie does not appear to have been involved. That said: I believe there are some legitimate complaints and concerns about Jane's role, especially given this history, with Bernie's political activities, both past and present.

First and foremost, she campaigned with him and participated in the personal smearing of Hillary Clinton’s character, all the while claiming not to do that thing. In late April, she gave an interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News—yes, Fox News, in which she claimed (a) she wasn’t interested in personal smears and (b) but boy she wished the FBI would hurry up with that probe.

"We want to let it go through without politicizing it, and then we’ll find out what the situation is. And that’s how we still feel," Sanders said. "I mean, it would be nice if the FBI moved it along," she added, with a laugh.

You can watch the clip here. It’s pretty clear what she is doing, because Jane Sanders is not slick. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily, but she’s not politically polished enough to slip in that knife without it being blazingly obvious what she is doing. Promising that you’re not attacking someone’s character and then “just mentioning” something unflattering about their character is a very old rhetorical trick. (Her husband is much more adept at this sort of thing. You may recall that he reminded his audience that Bill Clinton’s behavior was “totally unacceptable” before assuring them he wasn’t running against Bill.)

I find it very hard to believe that she did not know the legal investigation into Burlington College was underway as she publicly reminded the Fox News audience that Hillary might be indicted. She certainly knew she’d been accused of financial fraud. And that if such an investigation blew up, it would, fairly or not, be deeply damaging to her husband’s career. It’s incredible to me that she egged on the insinuations about Clinton knowing all that. And she continued to insist there had been some kind of DNC corruption that spoiled her husband’s chances after Clinton won the nomination, despite the fact that the actual Wikileaks emails didn’t support that at all. Surely she knew that she wasn't the best person to be criticizing alleged backroom crooked deals, because she was opening herself up to scrutiny that could have harmed Bernie. And, given his increasing prominence in progressive politics, it could harm the entirety of the movement, on which people's safety, opportunity, and lives depend.

Further, Jane Sanders was foundational in establishing Bernie’s post-campaign “movement,” Our Revolution, a 501 c4 which concerns itself first and foremost with economic populism, and lends financial support to specific candidates that fit a Sanders-approved “progressive” mold. (This is the group which recently came under fire for its support of Heath Mello.) Jane Sanders chaired the board that founded Our Revolution, and was instrumental in bringing in Jeff Weaver to run the group, despite previous assurances to Sanders staffers that Weaver would not be involved. This led to a round of resignations by staffers, who were also concerned that the group also is set up to raise “dark money.” The fact that the group does not disclose the names of its donors raises serious transparency questions. Although Jane Sanders has stepped away from the board, there is no way around the fact that she helped found a financially opaque organization that is allegedly about promoting economically populist candidates and grassroots campaign contributions.

Finally, there is this: Bernie Sanders has appointed himself not only the arbiter of all things progressive, but as the moral scold of the Democratic party. It’s pretty breathtaking that he feels free to waggle his finger at Barack Obama for his paid speeches, making vague insinuations about corruption when his own taxes—never disclosed—are allegedly prepared by his spouse, who seems to be under federal scrutiny as part of a fraud case.

To borrow a phrase: Bernie, the “optics” aren’t so good.

So what does all this mean? Well, first and foremost, let me say that I don’t think this revelation means Jane Sanders needs to remove herself from Bernie’s work or vanish from the political scene or whatever it is we tell political women to do these days.

But if I were Bernie and Jane Sanders, I would do everything in my power to establish my bona fides and be as completely transparent as it is possible to be, because the scrutiny is only going to get more intense the more prominent they become. And when you position yourself as leaders, your credibility isn't just about you anymore, but about the credibility of all the people you purport to represent.

I’d release my tax returns, and stop giving Trump cover for hiding his. The longer they wait to do this, the worse it looks (“optics” again).

I’d be ready to explain how Jane Sanders came to sit on the Board of Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, for which she received about $5,000 in compensation, according to the brief 2014 tax records the campaign did release. I don’t believe Bernie Sanders worked to set up the agreement to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to Texas so his wife could profit. But in light of the allegation that she used her position as a Senator’s wife improperly, in order to get the bank loan, I’d want to be able to make it clear that she was appointed for her own merits, and does not have a history of abusing his position.

I’d clear up lingering questions about the way Sanders’ primary money was spent, including the role of dark money from the Friends of Earth Action Campaign.

I’d certainly avoid doing any more of this delaying and delaying and finally never filing my required financial disclosures.

And I’d sure as hell do some retroactive vetting of Tad Devine, if I hadn’t done so previous to the campaign. The last thing Bernie and Jane Sanders need is to be caught flat-footed if Devine has any questionable Russian connection come to light. (To be fair, it's possible they have already done this behind the scenes. But if not, I wouldn't delay.)

In short, I’d do everything I could to clean up any appearance of irregularities. Fairly or not, Jane’s (probable) entanglement in investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice affects both Bernie and Jane’s credibility regarding financial issues. They have played fast and loose in the past with their own financial record-keeping and transparency. That needs to end. This is the big time now.

Like it or not (and I don’t!) Bernie Sanders has become a spokesman for the Democratic party and for a progressive movement. He has tied his brand to ending “Establishment” corruption and promoting economically populist candidates. And Jane has plunged herself into this role as well, defending Heath Mello from attacks she characterized as hypocritical and “political correctness.” That’s her right, of course, but hypocrisy is certainly a word I would be careful with if I were in Jane Sanders’ position.

This is the thing: this isn’t just about Bernie and Jane Sanders anymore. It’s about the wider credibility of the Democrats and the political left in general. The GOP would like nothing better than to deeply damage that credibility. It would pay for both Sanders to be enormously careful right now. For the love of country, Bernie and Jane: please don’t hand the right any ammunition.

UPDATE: It seems there is more focus directly on Jane Sanders than was originally apparent. Friday evening, Paul Heintz posted a story for Seven Days which included an interview with former Burlington College officials. This contained more details about the FBI interviews:

Sara Adsit-McCuin, who served on the defunct college's board for roughly three years, said Friday that she was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation "a couple of weeks ago." During an in-person interview, two FBI agents focused their questions on Burlington College's 2010 purchase of a 32-acre campus overlooking Lake Champlain. At the time of the deal, O'Meara Sanders was serving as the college's president.

"I didn't give them any information that they didn't already have," Adsit-McCuin told Seven Days.

Carol Moore, a former president of the college, told Seven Days that she, too, had been contacted “three or four weeks ago” by an FBI agent. He confirmed to her that “this is an ongoing investigation,” Moore said.

The FBI and Department of Justice did not comment on the probe. Nor did Jane Sanders or Senator Sanders. Both Moore and Holm, however, were clear on the focus of the investigation.

Moore, who was Holm’s boss at the time, was aware of the FBI’s interest. She said it was clear from the start what the bureau was investigating: “Was there any collusion between Jane Sanders and the bank? Did she falsify records in order to get the loan from the bank?”

...Holm said the FBI assured her that the college itself was not the subject of its inquiry. "They were not looking at the college as the party under investigation," she said.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.

At this juncture it is very clear that Jane Sanders is specifically under investigation. It's not clear how much she knew about the investigation, but the article suggests the college kept her daughter, Carina Driscoll, informed, but without divulging details. The FBI began its investigation in February 2016.

There seems little doubt that Sanders knew her past dealings were receiving federal attention at the very time she was impugning Hillary Clinton for being under FBI investigation, even if she was not aware of the details.

Bernie and Jane Sanders are accustomed to the national media more or less ignoring these stories that fill the local Vermont papers. That may be about the end. Once again, I call on them to get their ducks in a row and give some better answers than that they're too busy to find their tax returns or too busy to file required financial reports. A great deal of Sanders' credibility relies upon his reputation for personal and professional financial integrity. Fairly or not, he will be judged for Jane's possible misdoings.

Straighten up and fly right, Bernie. A lot of people have put their trust in you.

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