The GOP Is Trying To Make The Burlington College Investigation About Bernie

Jun 27, 2017

The federal investigation into a financing deal orchestrated by Jane Sanders when she was president of Burlington College has become a political liability in Washington, D.C. for her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The investigation hinges on what claims Jane Sanders made to People’s United Bank as Burlington College was applying to borrow money to finance the purchase of its North Avenue headquarters in 2010.

In a June 22 article, Politico Magazine provided an extensive account of Sanders’ past at Burlington College and the questions surrounding the land deal that some say doomed the small liberal arts school. Now, the Republican National Committee is sending email blasts to Vermont reporters calling for more coverage of the investigation and Sanders' unwillingness to talk about it.

Jane Sanders’ tenure at Burlington College has been the source of controversy – and Republican criticism — for years in Vermont. Now, after VTDigger revealed in April that Jane Sanders is the target of a federal investigation, the Republican Party apparatus is trying to draw increased attention to the investigation and make it a political problem for Sen. Sanders.

While Jane Sanders’ tenure at Burlington College ended in 2011, it wasn’t until 2016 when Sen. Sanders was running for president that federal investigators started asking current and former college officials about the 2010 land deal.

That’s not an accident; the federal investigation came after Brady Toensing – a Washington, D.C. attorney who serves as the co-chair of the Vermont Republican Party – sent a letter to the Department of Justice formally requesting an investigation.

In a June 23 email to Vermont reporters, Republican National Committee Regional Communications Director Ellie Hockenbury called for more coverage of the Burlington College investigation.
Credit Screenshot of a June 23, 2017 email from the Republican National Commitee

Federal investigators contacted Burlington College’s then-president Carol Moore about the land deal weeks after Toensing’s letter, Moore said.

The FBI and the office of the U.S. Attorney for Vermont have both declined to confirm or deny the presence of an investigation, but multiple former college officials say they’ve heard from federal investigators who were asking about the land deal.

Now, the Republican National Committee is working to ensure that the Burlington College investigation stays in the news. On June 23, RNC Regional Communications Director Ellie Hockenbury sent out an email blast.

“Someone other than Kyle Midura of Burlington TV station WCAX might care to also bring this up the next time he or she interviews Bernie or Jane Sanders,” the email said before linking to the Politico Magazine story.

Another email from Hockenbury, sent June 27, came with the subject line “Bernie isn’t having any of it” and provided links to stories from The Associated Press, WCAX, Fox News (in a video posted to the "GOP War Room" YouTube channel) and CBS News about the Burlington College issue and, specifically, Sen. Sanders’ unwillingness to talk about it.

On June 27, Republican National Committee Regional Communications Director Ellie Hockenbury sent an email to Vermont reporters calling attention to Sanders' unwillingness to talk about the Burlington College investigation.
Credit Screenshot of a June 27, 2017 email from the Republican National Commitee

Hockenbury’s second email opens with the line: “Questions are mounting over an FBI investigation into Bernie and Jane Sanders for bank fraud, but Bernie isn’t answering any of them…”

The RNC emails don’t provide any new information that hasn’t been in the news already, but they’re a clear effort to generate interest in – and coverage of – the Burlington College investigation and the couple’s response to the investigation.

The RNC also seems to subtly suggest that Sen. Sanders himself is under investigation, but there is no publicly available evidence that federal authorities are looking into Jane Sanders. In fact, the only suggestion that Sen. Sanders has any connection at all to the Burlington College land deal came from the same place as the original investigation request: Brady Toensing sent a letter to federal authorities asking them to look into whether Sanders improperly used his influence as a U.S. senator to help his wife’s professional efforts.

"No one is aware of anyone in the Senator's office being contacted about Burlington College." — Jeff Weaver, Sanders family spokesman

In a May 25, 2016 letter to the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, Toensing wrote that he was “approached and informed that Senator Bernard Sanders’ office improperly pressured People’s United Bank to approve the loan application submitted by the Senator’s wife, Ms. Sanders.”

Toensing provided no additional evidence to support his claim, nor did he name the source of his information.

In an email to VPR on May 8, 2017, a spokesman for the Sanders family said that investigators had not contacted Bernie Sanders’ Senate staff.

“No one is aware of anyone in the senator’s office being contacted about Burlington College,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former campaign manager who now serves as a spokesman for the Sanders family. “Nor should there be any reason to believe anyone would be,” he added.

While the investigation is increasingly a political headache for Sen. Sanders, there’s no public evidence that he is a target of the federal investigation into his wife’s actions at Burlington College. Former college officials say investigators’ questions were focused on Jane Sanders and her handling of the land deal, but none of them said they were questioned about Sen. Sanders himself.

That doesn’t stop Sen. Sanders’ political opponents from making suggestions of wrongdoing. With Sen. Sanders’ bristly responses to questions about Burlington College making headlines in Washington, those suggestions are proving enough to keep the Burlington College issue in the news.