Documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation indicate that the wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders may have been able to use her clout to get away with loan fraud, nearly bankrupting the small college she was president of and collecting a sizable severance package in the process.
These revelations come amid growing speculation that Sen. Sanders, a self-described socialist who has blasted the U.S. government asan oligarchy run by billionaires and railed against the golden parachutes received by top corporate executives, will contend for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Jane Sanders was the president of tiny Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont for seven years, from 2004 until 2011. During her tenure, Sanders masterminded an ambitious expansion plan that would have more than doubled the size of the school. To do so, she had the college take on $10 million in debt to finance the purchase of a new, far more expansive campus. The move backfired massively, leading to Sanders’ departure from the college and the near-collapse of the institution.
According to Jonna Spilbor, an attorney who reviewed the documents for TheDCNF, “the college APPEARS to have committed a pretty sophisticated crime” by exaggerating donor commitments in order to secure financing for the deal.
Sanders’ role in bringing Burlington College to the brink of the abyss has been known for years. Research by TheDCNF, however, indicates that Sanders may not just be guilty of bad judgment, but potentially criminal activity enabled by Vermont officials willing to implicitly trust the wife of a sitting senator.
How A College’s Big Dream Turned Into Its Big Nightmare
Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont is a small school by any measure. Founded in 1972 in a person’s living room, the school has consistently had fewer than 300 students. Accordingly, for most of its history it has lacked much of a campus. The school also caters to a relatively niche market interested in programs such as its relatively rare study-abroad program in Cuba.
Jane Sanders hoped to change that through an extremely ambitious expansion effort. A new prime property came onto the Burlington market in 2010: A 32-acre plot on the shores of Lake Champlain owned by the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which was being sold off to help pay for a $17 million settlement of several sex-abuse lawsuits. The property included one large building– a three-story structure that once served as an orphanage.
Sanders hoped that the former orphanage could be converted into the main structure of a new, expanded campus, which could then provide the space needed for a huge expansion of the college from less than 200 full-time equivalent (FTE) students to over 400.
Such a prime property, though, had a high cost: Over $10 million. That was a great deal of money for a school with essentially no endowment and an annual budget of about $4 million.
In order to finance the purchase, Burlington College presented its case to the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Finance Agency (VEHBFA), a state agency that issues tax-exempt state bonds for the benefit of non-profit institutions like schools or hospitals.
People’s Bank agreed to purchase the bonds, though in an analysis of the deal commissioned by VEHBFA, consulting firm PFM Group noted that, “The bank’s willingness to fund the loan is contingent upon … the minimum commitment of $2.27 million of grants and donations prior to closing.”
The college dutifully complied, producing a spreadsheet listing 31 confirmed donors who were scheduled to give the school over $2.6 million in donations between 2011 and 2016, including a $1 million commitment scheduled to pay out over five years.
And that was only the bottom limit, Sanders suggested, as there were millions more in verbal pledges or other donations that, while likely, were not set in stone. With those pledges, Burlington’s five-year fundraising projections reach just over $5 million.
Won over by the college’s case, VEHBFA approved its financing, granting the school $6.5 million in tax-exempt bonds.
But in fact, even the smaller figure supplied by Sanders appears to have been anything but “confirmed.” According to audits obtained by TheDCNF, the school listed $1,303,785 in short- and long-term commitments for the year ending June 30, 2011, the same year that the college received the financing.
An accountant that spoke with TheDCNF explained that when non-profit organizations account for donations, future commitments are documented in the present as long as they are legally-binding, no matter when they are due to be collected.
Indeed, the school’s 2011 audit report confirms the use of this procedure, saying, “Contributions, including unconditional promises to give, are recognized as revenue in the period the contribution or promise is received.”
In other words, if Burlington College genuinely had the $2.6 million in confirmed commitments that they claimed on their application for VEHBFA financing, then the full amount should have showed up on their FY 2011 audit.
A little more than $1.3 million of the total claimed by the college, though, seems to have simply disappeared like vapor.
That’s not the only red flag from the school’s 2011 audit. Of the $1.3 million in listed contributions, by far the largest is a “binding estate gift” of $1 million that the college says it expects to collect more than five years in the future. This $1 million gift also appears on the school’s 2012 and 2013 audits, and continues to be listed as more than five years from realization.
This is radically different from the million dollar donation the college said it had already confirmed in its VEHBFA application. There, the college described the million dollar gift as being paid in annual installments of $150,000, plus a final one of $100,000.
Christine Plunkett, Sanders’ successor as Burlington College president, explained this shift last summer, when she told a local TV station that after becoming president she was surprised to find that a million dollar “donation” was actually a bequest (Plunkett did not respond to TheDCNF’s interview request).
The accountant who spoke with TheDCNF said such a mistake was egregious, because bequests are far less legally binding (wills can be changed or invalidated). Such bequests shouldn’t be counted as confirmed contributions, he said.
Spilbor said that if Sanders or anybody else had knowingly garnished their confirmed donation figures, it would be “a pretty clear cut case” of fraud committed against the state.
“One way in which fraud occurs, is when a borrower (in this case, the college) acquires ownership of real property under false pretenses— such as misrepresented income and asset information on a loan application,” she explained.
TheDCNF raised the matter in a phone call with Sanders, who denied any obfuscation, saying, “We gave the entire VEHBFA board very clear indications of what money was in hand; what money was expected; what money was absolutely not able to be revoked; so I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I do know that everything was very straightforward,” Sanders continued, noting that the plan “was approved by our board of trustees, by the Republican governor of Vermont, by the VEHBFA board, and by the bank’s board, so it was not some pie in the sky.”
Moreover, she said, “There was an outside nonprofit organization that looked at everything we did for VEHBFA,” a reference to the PFM Group analysis (PFM is not itself a nonprofit, but conducts analyses exclusively for government and nonprofit groups).
Spilbor noted that part of the blame also belongs with People’s Bank, saying, “if you elect to hold a note for a buyer/borrower, you’d better do your due diligence.”
Even so, she said, “the college APPEARS to have committed a pretty sophisticated crime. Whether prosecutors will do anything about it, is a whole other story.”