ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has retained counsel as the FBI investigates whether his wife, Jane Sanders, committed fraud to acquire a 2010 loan for a now-shuttered Vermont college, predicted Saturday night that the probe would be a political fizzle.
“This was a story that just, amazingly enough, came out in the middle of my presidential campaign, initiated by Donald Trump’s campaign manager in Vermont,” Sanders said in an interview, between rallies in Pennsylvania and Ohio organized to defeat Senate Republicans’ health-care bill. “That’s about it. I don’t think it’ll be a distraction.”
Last week, longtime Sanders reporter Harry Jaffe reported that Bernie and Jane Sanders had retained attorneys Rich Cassidy and Larry Robbins to represent them in a long-running investigation into the collapse of Burlington College, which Jane Sanders led from 2004 to 2011. The investigation began in January 2016, when attorney and Vermont GOP vice chair Brady Toensing urged the FBI to probe whether Jane Sanders had committed bank fraud to acquire a new campus for the college.
But Jaffe’s reporting sparked new interest in the story; on Saturday night, anyone in the audience of Sanders’s Pittsburgh speech who checked Twitter saw that the largest trending “Moment” was about the Burlington College probe. In July 2014, Toensing requested documents from the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Finance Agency about the college’s purchase of land from a Catholic diocese. Jane Sanders had claimed $2.6 million in pledges, helping the college secure a loan to pay for the land; the college had received less than $1 million in donations, with other pledges (including a yet-to-be-paid $1 million bequest) being counted to reach the total.
The story attracted little attention during the 2016 primaries, with voters in exit polls typically saying they found Sanders to be more trustworthy than a scandal-plagued Hillary Clinton. But bitterness about the primary has fed the story; on Twitter, Clinton supporters have joined a chorus of conservatives in crowing that Sanders is “under FBI investigation.”
Sanders himself is not under FBI investigation, but for some Clinton supporters, the attack comes as a belated revenge for the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server as U.S. secretary of state that dragged through her presidential campaign and resurfaced in its final week.
No charges were brought. But although some Sanders surrogates and delegates warned that the Democrats should not have a nominee “under FBI investigation,” neither Bernie nor Jane Sanders made much of the story; in April 2016, Jane Sanders suggested “it would be nice if the FBI moved it along” but emphasized that her husband was not using the email probe to attack Clinton.
“That’s one of the things that’s very sad about our politics today,” Jane Sanders told The Washington Post this month when asked about the Burlington College probe. “The Sanders Institute will not be taking any potshots at people.”