GOP targets Sanders over wife's role in land deal under investigation

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his wife Jane Sanders, wave after a campaign rally Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Republican National Committee took aim at the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Monday, raising the prospect in a mass email and a blog post that a federal investigation involving Jane O’Meara Sanders’ work at Burlington College could land her in prison and tank his chances at another run for the presidency in 2020.

Sen. Sanders and Jane Sanders have both adamantly denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the probe as the result of a political vendetta, and there is currently no indication she will face criminal charges. However, recent media reports indicate the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal prosecutors continue to conduct interviews and collect evidence, including using a grand jury to question at least one witness.

The investigation reportedly centers on a loan Burlington College received in 2010 when Jane Sanders was president of the small Vermont college. Discrepancies have been alleged between claims Sanders made in documents listing pledged donations for the school and the pledges and donations that were actually made.

Sanders was hired in 2004 to lead the school, which operated on an extremely small campus and enrolled less than 200 students, with the expectation that she would raise its profile and improve fundraising efforts.

In 2010, the college sought tax-exempt financing through the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency to purchase 32 acres of property on Lake Champlain from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington where the school could build a new campus.

The VEHBFA approved $6.7 million in bonds, which would be purchased by People’s United Bank. The Roman Catholic Diocese agreed to a $3.65 million mortgage to make up the rest of the $10 million purchase price. To convince the college board of trustees and the financers to support the deal, Sanders submitted a spreadsheet that listed $2.6 million in confirmed pledges for donations and $2.5 million more in unconfirmed pledges, with the donors identified only by initials.

Six months later, less than $300,000 in donations had materialized, according to public records, far short of the $1.2 million Sanders had claimed would be collected by that time. At least five people who believe initials on the spreadsheet referred to them have since come forward and denied that they agreed to the amounts or timelines Sanders asserted.

In December 2011, Sanders was forced out of her position by the board of trustees. Board members have offered differing accounts of why Sanders was replaced and what role the land deal and concerns about her fundraising claims played.

In 2014, the college’s accreditation was suspended due to financial problems. According to the Burlington Free Press, in April 2016, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges moved to revoke its accreditation. Around the same time, People’s United Bank denied a request to renew the school’s $1 million of credit.

In May 2016, Burlington College shut down, with school officials citing the “crushing debt” incurred in the 2010 land purchase as a reason. In a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education months later, the college president laid blame directly on Sanders’ “appallingly inappropriate investment.”

“BC’s fate was set when its former board members hired an inexperienced president and, six years later, approved the imprudent purchase of a $10 million piece of property for campus expansion,” Carol Moore wrote, suggesting the board and the bank that signed off on the deal had some explaining to do.

Earlier that year, Brady Toensing, a Republican attorney who would later serve as co-chair of Donald Trump’s campaign in Vermont, sent a letter to then-Vermont U.S. Attorney Eric Miller and the acting inspector general for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation alleging that Jane Sanders committed federal loan fraud by misrepresenting the amount of confirmed grants and donations that had been pledged. He also claimed that her status as “the wife of a powerful United States senator” gave her the political clout to avoid the scrutiny that such a loan application would normally face.