Sen. Bernie Sanders and Jane O'Meara Sanders campaign in Reno, Nev., in February 2016.
An adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) family is disputing a report that federal authorities empaneled a grand jury in connection with a long-running investigation into a 2010 land deal orchestrated by his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders.
In a story published Sunday, VTDigger.org reported that the probe had progressed to the point that federal prosecutors had convened a grand jury — a step the news outlet suggested meant the feds were seeking indictments. Authorities have spent two years investigating whether, during O'Meara Sanders' tenure as president of Burlington College, the now-defunct institution overstated pledged donations to secure a bank loan.
Former Burlington College board member Robin Lloyd told VTDigger that she testified before a grand jury last October at the federal courthouse in Burlington. She said that Paul Van de Graaf, who heads the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont, questioned her for an hour about the college's attempts to secure pledges to buy a $10 million campus.
In a statement issued to Seven Days following publication of the VTDigger story, Sanders family spokesman Jeff Weaver cast doubt on it.
"We have absolutely no reason to believe that there is a grand jury empaneled to examine Burlington College, Jane Sanders, or any aspect of Dr. Sanders' service as president of Burlington College," said Weaver, who has previously served as the senator's chief of staff and campaign manager. "As best we can tell, the current news reports are simply recycling an account of a government interview of a witness from several months ago. Nothing new here."
In an interview with Seven Days late Sunday, Lloyd provided more context as to why she may have been summoned before a grand jury. She said that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents showed up at her Burlington home early last October to question her about Burlington College.
"The first time two FBI guys came around I said I would only talk to them with my lawyer," Lloyd said. "Of course, I didn't have a lawyer at that point. So I did get a lawyer, but I didn't call them back. So then the next visit was this subpoena to appear before the grand jury."
Lloyd said she and her attorney, Charlotte Dennett, met with Van de Graaf and then appeared before a grand jury on Thursday, October 26 — roughly two weeks after the FBI agents showed up at her door.
She told Seven Days she was not sure whether prosecutors had empaneled a grand jury specifically to hear evidence in the Burlington College matter, as VTDigger reported. A standing grand jury meets most Thursdays in the Burlington courthouse and can be used to gather evidence and interview witnesses in ongoing investigations.
Lloyd said she did not know whether she was compelled to appear before the grand jury simply because she had declined to speak with the FBI or if prosecutors were, in fact, seeking indictments. The VTDigger piece quoted no other sources claiming to have addressed a grand jury.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Vermont office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Sunday.
Update, January 8, 2017, at 6:58 a.m.: Following publication of Seven Days’ story Sunday night, VTDigger corrected its report to remove multiple references to the empanelment of a grand jury. The online news outlet changed its original headline, “Grand jury empaneled in Burlington College case,” to a new one, “UPDATED: Grand jury takes sworn testimony in Burlington College case.” VTDigger removed at least two other uses of the word “empaneled” from the story and added the statement Weaver provided Seven Days. The new version of VTDigger's story includes an editor’s note at the beginning saying that it had been “updated.” At the end, it says it was also corrected.