A federal investigation of Jane Sanders is quickly becoming a political problem for her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Officials are looking into whether Jane Sanders lied on a loan application when she was president of Burlington College, a small liberal arts school along the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont.
Questions about Jane Sanders' time at the college are putting Bernie Sanders on the defensive at a time when national speaking tours and regular appearances on cable talk shows have some of his supporters predicting a 2020 presidential run.
Investigators have not formally accused Jane Sanders of any wrongdoing, but at least one donor has publicly said that Sanders mischaracterized the financial gift she had promised to the college. Sanders allegedly claimed in loan documents that Corinne Bove Maietta, a member of a prominent Burlington family, promised a series of donations to the college, but Maietta has since said that the money was actually promised as a bequest, not recurring gifts.
Jane Sanders is one of her husband's closest political advisers. On the campaign trail last year, she took the stage with him regularly, from rallies in rural Iowa to his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary. In hotels on the campaign trail, she could be seen in the lobby working with campaign staff.
A spokesman for the Sanders family says the investigation is part of a politically motivated attack designed to hurt the Vermont senator's political career, but that hasn't stopped investigators from requesting documents and conducting interviews with former Burlington College officials.
Here's what we know — and what we still don't know — about the Burlington College investigation:
Jane Sanders took over as president of Burlington College in 2004 with plans to grow the small liberal arts school (enrollment was below 200 in the college's final academic year). By 2010, that plan included expanding the college into a new campus.
In 2010, the college got a loan in order to buy a $10 million headquarters building on more than 30 acres of waterfront land just a mile north of where Bernie Sanders would launch his presidential campaign more than five years later.
People's United Bank provided the money. The college bought the property. Six years later, after Burlington College's accreditation came into question over financial woes, and just months after federal agents began asking questions about Jane Sanders' loan application, the college closed.
While the investigation began just as the college was collapsing, Sanders and his supporters say the event that brought Jane Sanders under scrutiny has nothing to do with Jane Sanders or Burlington College. Sanders says this whole situation is a political play by Republicans to hurt his reputation. Whether the investigation reveals wrongdoing or not, Republican operatives are working to bring this issue into the spotlight.
In January 2016, more than five years after the loan to Burlington College was approved, and eight months after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential run, Brady Toensing wrote a letter to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into the statements Jane Sanders made on the loan application. Toensing served as the Vermont campaign chairman for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and is the co-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party.
Within a few weeks of Toensing's letter, former college officials said, they heard from federal investigators who were asking questions about what Jane Sanders told lenders. The Washington Post reported this week that prosecutors have subpoenaed college records for a grand jury.
The federal investigation hadn't been publicly reported when Burlington College shut down in the spring of 2016, but the local nonprofit news site VTDigger revealed emails this spring from Vermont's Agency of Education that showed officials discussing the investigation.
Since VTDigger revealed the federal investigation, Republican Party staff have been working to generate press coverage about the investigation and implicate Bernie Sanders himself, but there's no public evidence to suggest Sanders was in any way involved with the Burlington College property deal and no public evidence that he is under investigation.
Jane and Bernie Sanders hired a lawyer this spring, after news of the investigation was public. Sanders' detractors say the move shows that there is something the couple is trying to hide. Family spokesman Jeff Weaver told the Post that there is no truth in that argument. He says the couple brought lawyers on because of fears that Trump or Sanders' other political adversaries would improperly use the Justice Department to damage the senator's reputation.
The investigation leaves Sanders sharing a small piece of common ground with Trump: Both men say political enemies are making up stories about them and their families to hurt their reputations and distract from the substance of their policies.
As with Trump, the investigation the Sanders family faces could change the political landscape of the next election; for Sanders, that could come as soon as 2018, when he faces reelection in Vermont. Sanders hasn't yet declared his candidacy, but his would-be opponents have already announced runs and they're already using Burlington College to call Sanders' character into question.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A federal investigation into Jane Sanders is becoming a political problem for her husband, Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. The allegations come from Jane Sanders' time as president of Burlington College. That's a small liberal arts college that closed last year because of financial problems. Reporter Taylor Dobbs has been covering this story for Vermont Public Radio, and he's here with us now. Hello.
TAYLOR DOBBS, BYLINE: Hi there.
MCEVERS: So just tell us some of the details of this investigation.
DOBBS: So Jane Sanders became president of Burlington College in 2004, and she had a plan to sort of expand the college, grow onto a new campus. So they applied for a loan for a new campus in 2010. It was a $10 million deal, and she said the college had millions of dollars flowing in and donations, and also there would be growing student enrollment.
She got the loan, and the deal went through in 2010. She left the college in 2011, and then it shut down last year, like you said, because of money problems. People at the college think that debt from the new campus is really what did the school in financially. But the investigation is focused mostly on whether or not Jane Sanders knowingly made false statements to lenders when they were getting that loan in 2010.
MCEVERS: Is there any evidence that Jane Sanders did mislead those lenders?
DOBBS: Well, we don't know what investigators have because they won't even comment on whether or not there is in fact an investigation. We know about the investigation because former staff and trustees have said that they were contacted by federal investigators, and those investigators were asking questions about the finances as they related to that land deal, the financial claims that Jane Sanders made as she was applying for the loan.
We know there's at least one donor who Jane Sanders said was going to give multiple gifts over a period of time, and she has since said that that was actually a bequest that was supposed to be paid out upon her death. So there were some inconsistencies there, but it's really not clear if that was a simple misunderstanding or something more sinister.
MCEVERS: And how is all of this related, if at all, to Bernie Sanders? I mean how does she fit into his political career?
DOBBS: So she's very close to Bernie's political career. I mean on the campaign trail, she was there almost every day. She was taking the stage with him at campaign events in rural Iowa. So what she has done in her past does somewhat reflect on what Bernie Sanders is doing right now with his politics just by virtue of that close association.
MCEVERS: Has Senator Sanders said anything about the investigation?
DOBBS: So he's been somewhat annoyed by this. He says his wife did nothing wrong, and this is entirely politically motivated. There are definitely politics involved. That's undeniable. The investigation actually started last year after a request from Brady Toensing, who was Donald Trump's campaign chair in Vermont in 2016, and he's also co-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. Bernie Sanders says this is all coming from the Republican Party, but Brady Toensing points out that this investigation started when President Barack Obama was in office, not Donald Trump. And he says that takes some of the partisanship out of the picture.
MCEVERS: Is there any indication that Senator Bernie Sanders himself has done anything wrong?
DOBBS: So there's no evidence that's been reported so far that Bernie Sanders had any role in this loan application process in 2010, and there's also no public evidence that he is himself under investigation. Brady Toensing did try to cast some suspicion on him with a letter suggesting he may have abused his power as a senator, but that really hasn't panned out, and there's no evidence that that actually happened.
But this is all important because Bernie is still doing national speaking tours. He's still on the talk shows almost every day. And people around him and Vermonters who are very strong supporters of him are expecting that maybe he'll run again in 2020. And if that's the case, this issue could really continue to dog him into that campaign.
MCEVERS: Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio, thank you very much.
DOBBS: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.