Attack Ad Hits Sanders With Charge of 'Golden Parachute'

Sep 18, 2014

Did Bernie Sanders’ wife violate her husband’s admonitions against “golden parachutes” by taking a $200,000 severance package from the college she resigned from in 2011?

That’s the premise behind a television ad set to hit network airwaves tomorrow. And it’s the latest volley in a long-running political battle between Vermont’s junior senator and a gas-station owner he says is to blame for “artificially” high gasoline prices in parts of Vermont.

Skip Valley, who owns dozens of Mobil stations and is among the largest fuel dealers in the state, will pay about $10,000 to air the ad on WCAX. The 60-second spot opens with a clip of Sanders, wherein he decries the rich “manipulating a rigged system” and “getting golden parachutes.”

A female voiceover breaks in to say that “what Bernie won’t tell you is that he and his wife, former Burlington College president Jane Sanders, got a golden parachute of their own.”

The “golden parachute” to which Vallee’s ad refers is the $200,000 that Jane Sanders was paid by the college during the two-year period after her resignation from the institution in October of 2011.

Asked to the respond to the allegation, Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs called Vallee a “junior varsity version of the Koch brothers” and said Sanders “will not be intimidated by a millionaire who has crawled into the gutter and bought TV ads attacking Bernie’s wife for a sabbatical she earned from a college where she was president for seven years.”

Briggs said in a written statement that the motivation behind the attack ad is readily apparent to anyone familiar with the history between Sanders and Vallee.  

“Skip Vallee has ripped off customers for years at his Burlington-area gas stations that sell the highest-priced gas anywhere in Vermont,” Briggs said. “Vallee clearly doesn’t like it that Bernie has exposed his ripoffs.”

Sanders in 2012 asked federal regulators to investigate what he characterized as “artificially high” gas prices in Chittenden, Grande Isle and Franklin counties, where 58 percent of the gas market is controlled by four companies, Vallee’s among them.

After Sanders’ threw his support behind a Costco’s proposal to install a gas station at its existing store in Colchester – a move he said would bolster gas-market competition – Vallee responded by paying to air a 30-second attack ad in late 2012. The ad accused Sanders of snubbing the state’s “treasured history of protecting our natural environment” by siding “with a multi-national, billion-dollar corporation over Vermonters.”

But Vallee says his latest criticism of Sanders has nothing to do with their gasoline wars, and everything to do with the financial crisis unfolding at Burlington College.

A regional accrediting agency has called into question the financial viability of the small liberal arts school. The fiscal woes prompted the resignation of former Burlington College President Jane Plunkett earlier this month.  An interim leadership team headed by Mike Smith, former administration secretary for James Douglas, is looking to piece together a survival plan.

The $200,000 paid to Sanders upon her departure has been characterized in most press accounts as a “severance package.” A Burlington College spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a call Wednesday.

Vallee says the $200,000 the College paid to Sanders would go a long way toward solving the immediate financial shortfalls the institution is suffering from now.

“This isn’t about bad feelings,” Vallee said. “This is about doing the right thing for the people of Vermont and for the students and faculty of Burlington College.”

In explaining the college’s current financial straits, Plunkett told auditors earlier this year that the payout to Sanders “depleted resources that would have been used to hire a new CFO,” according to an article by Alicia Freese at Seven Days.

Jane Sanders’ departure from the college in 2011 followed repeated calls for her ouster by faculty, students and staff, who, according to an article in VTDigger that ran shortly before her resignation, blamed her for an “atmosphere of fear and censorship.”

Jane Sanders orchestrated the 2010 purchase of a $10 million, 32-acre lakefront property; debt obligations from the deal are among the factors contributing to financial problems that prompted the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to put the school on probation this summer.

In official correspondence, Burlington College praised Sanders’ tenure. The school’s board of trustees voted shortly after her resignation to name an art gallery in her honor, and she was given the title of “President Emerita,” a distinction previously given only to the college’s founder.

Vallee’s ad will begin running Thursday. And he says he may buy airtime on additional network stations, if the Sanders’ don’t comply with the ad’s demands that they “give back the golden parachute.”

“If he gives the money back, I won’t need to run it for very long,” Vallee says.

The ad comes as Sanders considers a presidential run. The self-described “Democratic Socialist” has been visiting the early-voting states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, and appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Vallee says the ad is unrelated to Sanders’ possible presidential aspirations.

“Now that being said, if he is in fact looking at a national campaign, then I think a guy like John Podesta” – a former Clinton aide who is expected to play a chief role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, should she opt to run – “will take this hypocrisy and hang it around Bernie’s neck.”