The FBI is investigating a 2010 real estate deal that Jane O’Meara Sanders orchestrated as president of Burlington College, according to two former Burlington College officials.
The college closed in May 2016 when People’s United Bank refused to renew its line of credit, College President Carol Moore said when she announced the closure.
The college’s financial downfall began years earlier, according to Moore’s assessment in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She wrote in August 2016 that Sanders’ time as college president, from 2004 through 2011, was the beginning of the end for the small alternative college. Sanders - who is married to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders - oversaw the college’s 2010 purchase of a new North Avenue headquarters building.
“BC’s fate was set when its former board members hired an inexperienced president and, six years later, approved the imprudent purchase of a $10 million piece of property for campus expansion,” Moore wrote. “Enrollment that year was about 195 and the budget just over $4 million, less than half of this ill-advised investment. What were they thinking? Where was the Finance Committee when these decisions were being made?”
The FBI started asking questions about that $10 million land deal before the college closed its doors, Moore said in an interview Tuesday.
“I was contacted and spoke with an FBI agent numerous times last spring, again last summer, and recently about maybe a month ago,” Moore said.
Moore said investigators are looking into the 2010 real estate deal, in which the college bought its new headquarters building and surrounding land from the Catholic Diocese, which needed money to pay for more than two dozen sexual assault cases.
“They’re focusing on the land deal, and the parties that were involved in that: The bank, the archdiocese and the president [of the college] at the time,” Moore said.
Moore said she first heard from the FBI in February or March of 2016.
Weeks before that, in January 2016, Washington, D.C. attorney and Vermont Republican Party co-chair Brady Toensing asked the U.S. Attorney for Vermont to launch an investigation into “apparent federal bank fraud.” The letter raised questions about claims Jane O’Meara Sanders made in order to get a loan from People’s United Bank to pay for the college’s new land.
Toensing said he has not been contacted by federal investigators.
“All I hope for is a fair and impartial investigation,” Toensing said.
Coralee Holm, who was dean of operations and advancements for Burlington College, said Tuesday that the college received a federal subpoena. She confirmed that she was contacted by federal investigators but said she wasn’t personally subpoenaed.
Holm said she never saw the loan agreement between Burlington College and People’s United Bank for the land deal, but investigators were asking her to find records of financial gifts to the college.
She said the FBI provided her with a list of financial pledges and asked her to turn over the college’s records related to those. Holm said she was unable to locate most of the records, and one that she did find was a bequest with information that didn’t match the list the FBI provided.
The FBI in Albany, which has jurisdiction in Vermont, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Burlington both refused to provide comment, noting that it is their policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.
A spokesman for Sen. Sanders did not respond to request for comment Tuesday.
Update May 3, 2017, 5:04 p.m. Jeff Weaver, Sanders former campaign manager, issued a statement through Revolution Messaging, a Washington D.C. public relations firm. The firm said Weaver was "speaking for the Sanders family." The statement:
"In February of 2016, in the middle of Bernie's presidential campaign, the vice-chair of the Vermont Republican Party asked for a federal investigation of Burlington College. Jane has not been contacted by the FBI or any other authority and only knows as much as news reports indicate. Jane served as president of the college from 2004 to 2011. In the five years following her departure, the college experienced major turnovers in leadership, staff and its Board of Trustees."