- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2017

Sen. Bernard Sanders has built a political career on railing against the shady ways of the financial industry. Now he and his wife are the ones facing accusations of shady dealings.

The Vermont power couple has become the focus of a federal investigation into whether Jane O’Meara Sanders committed bank fraud as president of Burlington College and whether Mr. Sanders‘ office played a role.

The probe threatens to undermine the populist message that Mr. Sanders has come to epitomize for political liberals, and which fueled his strong second-place showing in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

For now, the same progressive groups that used to leap to defend Mr. Sanders have gone silent in the face of the accusations and after Mr. Sanders‘ decision to lawyer up and deflect questions about his financial dealings.

Mr. Sanders has brushed aside the attacks as politically motivated.

But VTDigger.org, a local news website, confirmed in April that the FBI and U.S. attorney were looking into a land deal that Mrs. Sanders engineered in 2010, receiving a $6.5 million loan from People's United Bank to purchase tax-exempt bonds issued by a state agency, and a $3.65 million loan from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to buy 33 acres of lakefront property for the school.

Brady Toensing, a Republican operative in the state who filed complaints asking for the FBI probe in early 2016, said Mrs. Sanders exaggerated the amount of pledged donations coming into the school in order to secure the loan and that Mr. Sanders‘ office pressured the bank to green-light the deal.

Mrs. Sanders’s privileged status as the wife of a powerful United States Senator seems to have inoculated her from the robust underwriting that would have uncovered the apparent fraudulent donation claims she made,” he wrote to Eric Miller, then U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont.

Mrs. Sanders parted ways with Burlington College in 2011 after receiving a $200,000 severance package spread out over two years.

The senator’s financial disclosure reports from 2012 and 2013 identified his wife’s source of income as “sabbatical” payments — though he was not required to identify the amount.

Those payments never became a focal point of the Democratic primary race in part because Mr. Sanders only released a two-page summary of their joint 2014 tax returns, and failed to follow through on his promise to release additional years that could have shined a brighter light on the “golden parachute” his wife received.

When pressed on the issue last year, Mrs. Sanders said her husband would share more of his financial history after Hillary Clinton released the transcripts of her speeches before Wall Street executives.

The story, though, picked up speed this month after Politico magazine reported that Jeff Weaver, a longtime Sanders aide, said that the couple had lawyered up.

Mr. Sanders at first brushed aside inquiries, but has continued to be peppered with questions during interviews, including on the Sunday talk show circuit over the weekend.

He has blamed the story on political rivals and said they were “pathetic” for questioning his wife’s time at the college, arguing she left the institution in better shape than she found it.

“Just at the moment — coincidentally, no doubt — when I am a candidate for president of the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign manager [in Vermont] and the vice chairman of the Republican Party in Vermont launched this investigation,” he said on CNN.

But Mr. Toensing said he started digging into the issue in July 2014 — nine months before Mr. Sanders entered the presidential race — after the New England Association of Schools and Colleges put Burlington College on probation, citing its financial woes.

His interest snowballed after learning last year that the cash-strapped college defaulted on a $3.6 million loan from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which went on to record a loss.

“My request for an investigation was prompted not by presidential politics,” he said in an email to The Washington Times.

“The information uncovered by that reporting, further financial deterioration, and the ultimate demise of the college, resulting in almost $2 million in losses to the Catholic Diocese (revealed by its financials) served as the basis for my complaint,” Mr. Toensing said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Vermont refused to confirm or deny an investigation.

But the political effects are already being felt.

“The shine is off Bernie’s image as this truth-telling outsider who is not a part of the political process,” said Colin Reed of the conservative America Rising political action committee. “Now he just looks like another corrupt D.C. politician.”

Many of Mr. Sanders‘ former liberal allies have gone silent.

“Sorry don’t have time to comment,” Kaitlan Sweeney, spokesman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an email to The Washington Times.

Democracy for America, Our Revolution and Moveon.org did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the accusations.

The Democratic National Committee, which has promoted Mr. Sanders as an integral part of its post-2016 rebuild, also did not respond to inquiries.

Rep. Keith Ellison, a deputy chairman of the DNC and staunch Sanders advocate, told The Washington Times that he didn’t really know much about the accusations against his political ally, but gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“I know this: I know Bernie Sanders is a man who is scrupulously honest and a good man,” Mr. Ellison said. “I have always known Bernie to be a rock-solid person who is all about the public interest and integrity in government. I haven’t seen anything to make me believe anything otherwise. He is a good man, and I guess the system will work its way out.”

Asked whether he believed the claims were politically motivated, Mr. Ellison said he wanted to let the facts play out, but also said “it is certainly possible.”

Jim Zogby, another Sanders ally and DNC member, said he had “literally no clue” about the accusations.

“I know absolutely nothing about it at all,” he said.

 

 

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