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Jane Says: Sanders' Secret Weapon or a Political Liability?


Published June 17, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 19, 2015 at 9:09 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sanders in the office she shares with Sen. Bernie Sanders - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Sanders in the office she shares with Sen. Bernie Sanders

The corner office in Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign headquarters has two desks — one for the candidate and one for his closest political adviser: Jane O'Meara Sanders, who doubles as his wife.

Last month, she took in the view of Burlington's City Hall Park three stories below and reflected on his choice to seek the Democratic nomination.

"The hardest part was making a decision, I think," she said.

Many political spouses steer clear of the day-to-day hustle of the campaign trail and the slow grind of government work, but that's never been O'Meara Sanders' MO. Since she introduced herself to her future husband the night he was elected Burlington mayor in 1981, O'Meara Sanders has played a crucial role in his public and political lives.

Soon after the mayor took over Burlington City Hall, she became the founding director of the Mayor's Youth Office, working for the man she'd marry in 1988. After he won a seat in the U.S. House in 1990, O'Meara Sanders spent five years working in a voluntary capacity in his congressional office. According to her LinkedIn page, she served during that period as "press secretary, chief of staff or policy analyst as needed."

And when the congressman was up for reelection, O'Meara Sanders worked as his television ad buyer, earning roughly $30,000 in commissions during the 2002 and 2004 elections, the Brattleboro Reformer reported at the time.

Now that Sanders is seeking the Democratic nomination, his wife continues to lead the parade.

"Bernie, Jeff and I are the people who run the campaign," she said last month, referring to Jeff Weaver, Sanders' former chief of staff and current campaign manager.

At the time, O'Meara Sanders said her role entailed doing "whatever comes up that has to get done until we're fully staffed up."

"But as time goes on, I'll be, hopefully, out of the administrative part of it and, really, as always, deal with strategy and fundraising," she said.

That worries some Burlingtonians who have crossed paths with O'Meara Sanders in her other professional roles — particularly the seven years she spent as president of Burlington College.

"As much as I want Bernie to win, the idea of her in the White House or of having any power at all is deeply disturbing," says former faculty member Genese Grill, who was fired by O'Meara Sanders and who calls her style "extremely dictatorial."

Other critics question whether she was responsible for the school's near-demise last year, when the cash-strapped college found itself struggling to meet payroll. They say she over-leveraged the institution by borrowing $10 million to finance a risky campus expansion, assuming she could make payments by increasing enrollment and donations during an economic downturn.

Grill's view is hardly the consensus of those who worked with O'Meara Sanders.

Seven Days spoke with more than half a dozen former and current Burlington College board members and several more former faculty and staff. Nearly every one of them praised what they called O'Meara Sanders' "visionary" approach to transforming the 44-year-old college from its scrappy roots to a first-class institution.

"Jane had a lot of vision and a lot of energy, and she saw Burlington College growing into something bigger," says Ben & Jerry's global director of social mission Rob Michalak, who served on the board during O'Meara Sanders' tenure.

So why was she ousted in the fall of 2011?

At the time, she and board members publicly maintained that her departure was entirely voluntary, though they privately admitted relations had soured in the preceding months. Things came to a head in late September, when the board added "Removal of the President" to a meeting agenda.

After submitting her letter of resignation, O'Meara Sanders told Seven Days simply, "I feel it's a good time to leave."

To this day, the reason for her exit remains a state secret. She declined requests for an interview on the subject, and the Sanders campaign refused to comment.

"Her departure is kind of kept under seal. I have no idea. None," maintains Pomerleau Real Estate senior vice president Yves Bradley, who joined the board in 2013 and now serves as its chair. "It's just not talked about."

It certainly was in the community. At the time, many speculated that O'Meara Sanders hadn't lived up to Burlington College's ambitious goal to raise $6 million in a capital campaign.

A year and a half earlier, in May 2010, O'Meara Sanders had convinced board members to buy one of Burlington's premier properties: a 32-acre stretch of mostly undeveloped land between Lake Champlain and North Avenue. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington had been eager to sell off the parcel to pay a $20 million settlement related to sexual abuse allegations.

"She was the one who really sought that out, dealt with the diocese right from the get-go and was very aggressive about doing so," says board member Patrick Mahoney, a retired orthopedic surgeon from South Burlington. "I thought she did a very good job."

But in order to finance the new campus, Burlington College had to borrow $10 million — $6.5 million in tax-exempt bonds held by People's United Bank and another $3.5 million loan from the diocese itself. Even proponents of the deal say it was a stretch.

"I liken it to a young couple buying a house of their dreams and then paying 50 percent of their combined salary to afford it," says Michael Luck, a fundraising consultant who served at the time as the school's vice president for development and alumni affairs. Everybody knew that, like the young couple, the school would be "eating peanutbutter sandwiches and macaroni and cheese for a while," Luck says.

Burlington activist Robin Lloyd, who served on the board, says she supported O'Meara Sanders' hiring, in part, because, "We felt that her connection with Bernie would be helpful, certainly in terms of fundraising." But when the college had to come up with the cash to make its payments, O'Meara Sanders didn't pull through, she says.

"She was very confident and gave good presentations to the board, but, frankly, she didn't raise money," Lloyd says.

According to Lloyd, O'Meara Sanders' departure was prompted by fundraising woes, but also by "an incident where she spoke rudely to some students." No other board member would speak on the record about the alleged incident, but one person purportedly involved says the president "blew up" at two staff members and a student during a tour of the new campus, prompting a staff member to file a grievance with the board.

"What occurred with Jane's departure, that's not something that anybody wanted to do," then-board chairman Adam Dantzscher says cryptically. "That was duty and bylaws and procedures and policies."

Whatever the reason, it's caused Sanders the senator plenty of political headaches.

Last September, local gas station magnate and Republican provocateur Skip Vallee spent $10,000 running a 60-second attack ad on WCAX-TV focusing on O'Meara Sanders' departure from Burlington College. He characterized the $200,000 severance package she received over two years as a "golden parachute" of the sort Sen. Sanders often rails against.

"I think he's a big hypocrite," Vallee says.

The Maplefields owner also criticizes O'Meara Sanders and her daughter, Carina Driscoll, for their paid work, more than a decade ago, on Sanders' reelection campaigns. In addition to the $30,000 O'Meara Sanders made, Driscoll earned $65,002 for her work as campaign manager, fundraiser and database manager during the 2000 and 2004 cycles, the Reformer reported.

Vallee calls the payments "a money-laundering scheme" designed "to take campaign money and put it in your own bank account," noting that the House subsequently voted to ban the practice. Weaver defended the arrangement at the time, saying, "They earned every penny they got."

Vallee also questions Burlington College's affiliation with the for-profit, Fairfax-based Vermont Woodworking School, which Driscoll cofounded and runs. Though it was arranged under O'Meara Sanders' reign, a 2011 evaluation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges found that the mother-daughter "relationship is clear to all constituents, from the Board on down to the faculty" and that measures had been taken to avoid conflicts of interest.

Driscoll declined to comment, as did the Sanders campaign, though last fall spokesman Michael Briggs called Vallee "pathetic" and a "junior varsity version of the Koch brothers."

Perhaps more damaging than the TV ad was a March 2015 story in the Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet, which alleged that O'Meara Sanders "may have defrauded" a state agency when Burlington College borrowed money to finance its expansion. Couched in the conditional, the story questioned the discrepancy between the $2.6 million the college listed in pledged donations in its December 2010 loan application and the $1.3 million it listed in an audit the following summer.

The allegation, bolstered by attorney and Fox News talking head Jonna Spilbor, was that O'Meara Sanders cooked the books in order to satisfy a loan requirement that Burlington College show at least $2.27 million in pledged contributions.

In its application to the state agency — the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency — the school promised that "one gift of $1-million has been committed and another $1-million has been verbally pledged." Years later, in August 2014, O'Meara Sanders' successor told WCAX she had belatedly learned that one of those pledges was actually a bequest, meaning the school couldn't count on it anytime soon.

"The understanding at the time was that it was a cash gift, and we proceeded until we understood it was a bequest," then-president Christine Plunkett told the station.

Board members were reluctant to discuss the questionable contribution, fearing they'd run afoul of a skittish donor. But Luck, the former finance VP, says everything was kosher.

"It was a legitimate, bona fide, legal gift that's still going to come to the college someday," he says.

Even at the time, Burlington College's application raised red flags with two VEHBFA board members, Agency of Human Services policy adviser Charly Dickerson and then-tax commissioner Tom Pelham. According to minutes from the meeting, Dickerson voted nay "out of concerns for Burlington College's financial strength and its ability to repay the debt."

Pelham recalls the deal as a "fire sale" that wasn't good for the college, the diocese or the city — only good for the bank, which he figured would eventually acquire the property, assessed at nearly $20 million.

"I've done a lot of public sector-development. I know what a good project looks like, and this one just didn't have it," says Pelham, who asked for an unusual recorded vote on the matter. "In retrospect, I was on the money."

As Burlington College struggled to stay afloat last year in a sea of debt, it was forced to sell off more than 27 acres of the property to developer Eric Farrell, who paid $7.65 million. The sale prompted protests from those who hoped to save the undeveloped land from Farrell's housing plans.

But even after the school's near-collapse, O'Meara Sanders argued that, had she remained in charge, she could have finished the job.

"I really am not in a position, nor do I want to be in a position, to judge what people did after I left," she told the Daily Caller. "I have no doubt that if [my plan] would have been implemented as set forth, the college would be in great shape."

Her allies agree, pinning the blame on Plunkett, who also resigned under pressure last August.

"After Jane left, every staff and faculty member key to the college's success was systematically pushed out, fired or treated poorly," says Carmen George, who served as development coordinator during O'Meara Sanders' tenure and left shortly thereafter. "Which in my opinion led to the ultimate bad financial situation of the college."

O'Meara Sanders may never be able to prove she could have steered Burlington College to safer waters. But now that she's helming an even bigger ship — a presidential campaign that expects to raise more than $50 million — she's got another chance to be captain. Or, at least, first mate.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Jane Says"