Newly released public records show that the U.S. Department of Justice began a probe into Burlington College, the Vermont school where Jane O’Meara Sanders once served as president.
The college closed in May 2016, citing the “crushing weight of debt” incurred by Sanders, who is married to Bernie Sanders. She resigned as president of Burlington College in 2011, taking a $200,000 severance.
To obtain $10 million in loans on behalf of the college, Jane Sanders repeatedly claimed the university had secured more than $2 million in fundraising commitments and pledges. That proved grossly inaccurate, with Burlington College bringing in only a fraction of what Sanders had promised.
Brady Toensing, vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party, has repeatedly claimed Sanders knowingly misrepresented Burlington College’s finances to obtain the loans. In January 2016, Toensing wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney calling for Jane Sanders to be investigated for federal bank fraud, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
The Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation seem to have followed up on Toensing’s claims, new emails obtained by VTDigger suggest.
After Burlington College closed, the Vermont Agency of Education found its records in disarray, VTDigger reported, so it took both nonacademic and student records. In emails, Agency of Education officials discussed whether they needed to retain the massive amounts of records, or whether it could rid itself of 150 banker boxes by destroying some of them.
In a Dec. 21, 2016, email obtained by VTDigger, a lawyer for Burlington College gave the agency permission to shred some unnecessary records but also told state officials, “You are aware that there is a DOJ investigation into some aspects of the College’s activities.”
In another email, dated Dec. 22, 2016, the Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Van de Graaf told the Vermont Agency of Education, “I think we need to make sure there is nothing significant to our federal investigation before [the records] are destroyed,” offering to pay for storage space for the Burlington College records.
The chair of Burlington College’s board of trustees said the FBI’s probe had been going on for more than a year, and former staffers had been subpoenaed, according to VTDigger.
Shortly after Burlington College closed, another member of the board of trustees said that “federal people have been asking questions” about the $10 million in loans Jane Sanders secured. At the time, he also told Heat Street he had no firsthand knowledge of the investigation. He could not be reached for comment Friday morning.
Jane Sanders did not immediately respond to Heat Street’s request for comment. Last year, a spokesman for Bernie Sanders told local media that allegations of fraud “recycled, discredited garbage.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute.