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Jane And Bernie Sanders Feel The Heat Over Investigation Into Shuttered College

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Jane Sanders and Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
John Minchillo, AP
Jane Sanders and Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

A federal investigation into Jane Sanders is quickly becoming a political problem for her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Federal investigators are looking into whether Jane Sanders lied in a loan application when she was president of Burlington College, a small liberal arts school along the shore of Lake Champlain.

Questions about Jane Sanders' time at the college are putting Sen. Sanders on the defensive at a time when national speaking tours and regular appearances on cable talk shows have some of this 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'd promised to the college. While 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 advisors. On the campaign trail last year, she took the stage with him regularly, from campaign 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.

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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 from where Sen. 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 Sen. 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 President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, and he's 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 non-profit 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 Sen. 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's something the couple is trying to hide. Family spokesman Jeff Weaver told The Washington Post that there's no truth in that argument. He says the couple brought lawyers on because of fears that President Trump or Sanders' other political adversaries would improperly use the Justice Department to damage Sen. Sanders' reputation.

The investigation leaves Sanders sharing a small piece of common ground with President 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 Sen. 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. Sen. 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.

Copyright 2017 Vermont Public Radio. To see more, visit Vermont Public Radio.

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