With his unquestioned progressive bona fides and an army of loyal supporters in place, Bernie Sanders has positioned himself as a major force heading into the 2020 presidential-speculation period (yes, it’s already here). Despite his age — he’ll be 79 in January 2021 — it would be foolish not to consider him, at this early date, a front-runner, if not the front-runner, for the Democratic nomination if he chooses to run. And he has done little to tamp down speculation, with two totally normal trips to Iowa planned in the coming weeks.
Yet there may be some dark clouds on the horizon for the Vermont senator. The Washington Post reports that a federal investigation into Jane Sanders, Bernie’s wife, is ramping up, with “prosecutors hauling off more than a dozen boxes of records from the Vermont college she once ran and calling a state official to provide evidence for a grand jury, according to interviews and documents.”
The probe involves Jane Sanders’s 2004–2011 tenure as president of Burlington College, a liberal-arts school that shuttered in 2016:
“The investigation centers on the 2010 land purchase that relocated Burlington College to a new campus on more than 32 acres along Lake Champlain. While lining up a $6.7 million loan and additional financing, Jane Sanders told college trustees and lenders that the college had commitments for millions of dollars in donations that could be used to repay the loan, according to former trustees and state officials.
Trustees said they later discovered that many of the donors had not agreed to the amounts or the timing of the donations listed on documents Jane Sanders provided to a state bonding agency and a bank. That led to her resignation in 2011 amid complaints from some trustees that she had provided inaccurate information, former college officials said.
The land deal, the officials said, became a financial albatross for the 160-student school, contributing to its closure last year.”
In a deep dive published last month, Politico detailed the rise and fall of the college, a tiny Vermont-crunchy enterprise founded in a literature professor’s living room in 1974. The school “always struggled with finances and accreditation,” as hippie colleges are wont to do, and had an enrollment of no more than 200 when Sanders took it over in 2004.
Billing herself as a “turnaround” president, Jane Sanders soon alienated many staff and students with her leadership style, including a popular literature professor she dismissed.
In 2010, she tried to make good on her ambitious mandate. She devised a plan to move the entire campus to 33 acres on Lake Champlain, which the school bought for $10 million from the local Roman Catholic Diocese through a series of byzantine loans.
Burlington College made the move, but quickly ran into trouble when it received only $279,000 in loan repayments and failed to raise more money through fundraising and enrollment. The board finally forced Sanders out in 2011, and the school weathered more financial problems and staved off bankruptcy before closing five years later.
Jane Sanders maintains that she’s being singled out over the deal, and cites the Trump administration’s malevolence as the reason she lawyered up this spring. “While the Obama administration was in office, I don’t think anyone thought that these baseless allegations warranted hiring a lawyer,” the Sanders’ spokesperson Jeff Weaver told the Washington Post. “But with Trump and [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions at the helm, that’s a very different situation.”
Accusations of a political persecution don’t seem far-fetched considering it was Brady Toensing, the rabble-rousing co-chairman of Donald Trump’s Vermont state campaign, who wrote to the U.S. attorney and federal bank lenders to notify them of possible wrongdoing in the first place. (Though the investigation did begin under Obama’s watch.) Running with Toensing’s findings, the right-wing website Daily Caller broke the story in March 2015 with the headline “Exclusive: Bernie Sanders’ Wife May Have Defrauded State Agency, Bank,” and other outlets like Fox News and Town Hall now gleefully tout every twist and turn of the investigation. It’s easy to imagine the thinking of a Sanders adversary: Expose the Vermont senator, no matter how tenuously, as someone who would surround himself with people who betray his incorruptible image. (Toensing has also pushed the line that Bernie Sanders pressured People’s United Bank to approve his wife’s loan applications, a claim for which there is little evidence.)
Still, it’s not clear to what extent the probe is being driven by 2020-centric calculations, nor if it will actually go anywhere. Whether a grand jury indictment is on the horizon is unknown; such a move would elevate the story from a curiosity that might vanish into a Trump-Russia newshole into something more substantial.