Jane Sanders in May in the campaign office she shares with Sen. Bernie Sanders
Two prominent Vermont Republicans have accused Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, of loan fraud and are calling on a federal prosecutor to investigate representations she made as president of Burlington College.
In a letter sent Sunday to U.S. Attorney Eric Miller, Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing alleged that O'Meara Sanders made material misstatements in a 2010 loan application when the college was seeking to purchase a 32-acre campus. Citing stories published by VTDigger.org and two conservative websites, Toensing accused O'Meara Sanders of overstating by nearly $2 million the amount of money donors had committed to finance the acquisition.
"The evidence indicates that Ms. Sanders, as president of the college, successfully and intentionally engaged in a fraudulent scheme to actively conceal and misrepresent material facts from a federal financial institution," he wrote.
Toensing filed the complaint on behalf of Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton, the 2012 Republican nominee for state treasurer, and "other aggrieved Vermont parishioners" of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The diocese, which previously owned the 32-acre plot overlooking Lake Champlain, lost between $1.5 million and $2 million when the college failed to repay a $3.65 million loan to the church, according to VTDigger.
The complaint comes just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, in which Sen. Sanders is competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. A spokesman for the senator said Monday in a written statement that Toensing's letter was politically motivated, calling it "recycled, discredited garbage."
"As Bernie gains in national polls showing him defeating Republican presidential candidates, it is not surprising that Republican operatives are slinging mud at him and his family," the spokesman, Michael Briggs, said. "These kinds of attacks on family members of candidates are one of the reasons why the American people are so disgusted with politics in America today."
Wilton did not return a call seeking comment Monday. In a phone interview, Toensing said his complaint was not politically motivated and that he had no interest in damaging Sanders' presidential prospects.
"No, I don't care. As a Republican, I would love to have Bernie as the nominee," he said. "He'd be perfect. He has no national appeal. If I could pull the switch and make him the Democratic nominee, I'd pull it."
Rather, Toensing said he was motivated by concern for Burlington College and the Catholic Church. But the diocese doesn't appear to be asking for Toensing's or Wilton's assistance.
"We don’t obviously want to get involved in any political battle involving presidential candidates," Bishop Christopher Coyne told Vermont Public Radio on Monday. "We’re not pushing this at all."
O'Meara Sanders has faced scrutiny over her tenure at Burlington College ever since she was ousted as its president in September 2011 and given a $200,000 severance package. That scrutiny only increased when the campus expansion she oversaw nearly resulted in its financial collapse in late 2014. The college eventually had to sell off much of its lakefront property to a developer to repay $10 million worth of loans.
In order to borrow the money in the first place, Burlington College had to demonstrate that it had at least $2.27 million in pledged contributions. But as Seven Days reported in June 2015, little of that money ever materialized. Two people whose pledged contributions were included in the college's loan application told VTDigger in September 2015 that they believed their pledges were overstated.
In his plea to federal officials to investigate the matter, Toensing argued that "the public harm in this case is substantial and should be part of your decision whether to open an investigation or to pursue charges."
"Ms. Sanders and her husband have built political careers pontificating against corporate corruption and claiming to want to help the needy," he wrote."The [diocese'] loss of $2 million as a result of Ms. Sanders' apparent misconduct will materially detract from [its] charitable work and cause significant harm to vulnerable Vermonters."
Miller, the U.S. attorney, said in a statement Monday that his office "does not comment on public requests to conduct criminal investigations."