Making Sense Of The Federal Investigation Into Burlington College Land Deal

Jan 12, 2018

The federal investigation of a land deal made by Jane O’Meara Sanders while she was president of Burlington College was back in the news this week.

VTDigger reported a former Burlington College official gave testimony to a grand jury in the fall of 2017 and Seven Days reported that as recently as a month ago the FBI conducted an interview related to the investigation.

O’Meara Sanders, the wife of Senator Bernie Sanders, served as president of the now shuttered college from 2004 to 2011.

In 2015, an investigation by VTDigger revealed that while Jane O’Meara Sanders was president of Burlington College, she overstated donations in an application for a loan used by the college to buy 33-acres of land.

Next, in January 2016, Brady Toensing -- an attorney and vice-chair of the Vermont GOP -- sent a letter to the federal government calling for them to investigate O’Meara Sanders for bank fraud.

Last year, VTDigger reported the FBI was investigating the deal. We now know that sometime in February or March of 2016, the FBI began to contact officials at Burlington College asking for records related to the land deal. This week, a Seven Days report indicated that the FBI’s investigation was active as of at least last month.

What is the FBI investigating?

The FBI has been questioning former Burlington College officials about the deal made back in 2010 for the college to buy 33-acres of land from the Roman Dioceses of Burlington.

Yves Bradley, a former trustee of Burlington College, said the FBI questioned him about the deal in mid-October.

Bradley isn’t the only former Burlington College official to have been interviewed by the FBI. This summer VPR spoke to two other former Burlington College officials who were contacted by the FBI about the land deal.

What is bank fraud?

In the letter from Toensing, he asked the feds to investigate Jane O’Meara Sanders for bank fraud. Under federal law, bank fraud occurs when someone knowingly tries to mislead a financial institution to get money, funds, or credits from a financial institution using false for fraudulent pretenses. The key here is intent: prosecutors have to prove that the person accused of bank fraud knowingly try to trick the institution. That can be hard to prove, and investigations into bank fraud can take a long time.

What is a grand jury and how does it work?

Recent reports about the involvement of a grand jury in the FBI probe have spotlighted confusion about grand juries, whose origins precede the Magna Carta.

A grand jury is a group of 16 to 23 people that is used to examine evidence and determine if there’s enough cause to charge someone with a federal crime. A grand jury has the authority to subpoena documents and witnesses to testify. All of this is done in secret.

In Burlington, there’s a standing grand jury that meets every Thursday to hear cases. It’s rare that it would be conveyed to hear one specific case.

If the grand jury decides to charge someone, that decision is public. Otherwise, the investigation stays secret.

How long a grand jury can take to reach a decision on a case varies depending on the individual case. Big, complex cases such as bank fraud can take a while.

Where does that leave the FBI’s investigation into Jane O’Meara Sanders and Burlington College?

There are still more questions than answers. The FBI have been interviewing witnesses and gathering documents since at least early 2016. Just because a grand jury has taken testimony on a case doesn’t mean there will be an indictment.

Jeff Weaver, a spokesman for the the Sanders family, provided a statement to VPR and other news outlets saying "we have absolutely no reason to believe that there is a grand jury empaneled to examine Burlington College, Dr. Jane Sanders, or any aspect of Dr. Sanders's service as president of Burlington College.”