Courts & Corrections

Emails reveal FBI, Justice probe of Burlington College

Burlington College
Burlington College, and the former headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. File photo by Phoebe Sheehan

BURLINGTON — The Justice Department was investigating the activities of the now-defunct Burlington College as recently as February, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

The emails show the U.S. attorney for Vermont and an FBI agent reviewed Burlington College records in the state’s possession earlier this year pursuant to an investigation. Both enforcement agencies declined to comment on the substance of that probe or whether it has been completed.

“It’s typical for us not to comment or to confirm whether or not there’s a current investigation. We would not comment on any active investigation,” said Kraig LaPorte, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. An FBI spokeswoman cited a similar policy.

The chair of the Burlington College board of trustees said Thursday that the FBI investigation has been going for more than a year, and at least one former school employee was subpoenaed as part of the probe.

In January 2016, after reporting by VTDigger showing former Burlington College President Jane Sanders overstated pledged donations in applying for a loan so the school could purchase its former North Avenue campus, Republican lawyer Brady Toensing made a formal request to the U.S. attorney for a fraud investigation.

The Vermont Agency of Education took possession of records left at the college in the wake of its sudden closure in May. When a college closes, state law requires the school or the state to keep academic records so students can obtain transcripts and graduate certificates.

Burlington College opted to let the state handle that process. Agency officials said they found the school’s records in disarray, in part because of an unsolved burglary. The state, as a result, took possession of nonacademic records as well as the student records it was required to take.

In November, Toensing requested an index of the records in the state’s possession. Education officials provided a list showing business records, board materials such as meeting minutes dating back to 1998, and records relating to the school’s accreditation.

Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders. Photo courtesy of Burlington College.
Former Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders. Photo courtesy of Burlington College.

Toensing then filed a public records request for some of the documents, which was denied on the basis that the nonacademic materials were not Agency of Education records.

The emails obtained by VTDigger show that, on Dec. 16, three days before rejecting Toensing’s request, Agency of Education attorney Molly Bachman sent an email to Burlington College attorney Robert Roesler asking for permission to destroy the records or for school officials to come collect them.

Roesler responded: “My initial impression is that some of those records need to be retained, but perhaps not all. … If we can find a place to store them, we probably will take the financial records, at least.”

Chief Deputy Attorney General Bill Griffin is copied on that exchange, in which Roesler stated that he spoke with Griffin about the situation.

After it became clear the remaining college trustees could find nowhere to put the 150 banker boxes of records the state wanted to get rid of, Roesler emailed Bachman on Dec. 21: “You are aware there is a DOJ investigation into some aspects of the College’s activities.” Roesler added that the Agency of Education had permission from Burlington College to shred any records the U.S. attorney didn’t want.

In a Dec. 22 email, Paul Van de Graaf, chief criminal lawyer for the U.S. attorney’s office, wrote to Bachman: “I think we need to make sure there is nothing significant to our federal investigation before (the records) are destroyed.”

Van de Graaf told Bachman the U.S. attorney would pay for the state to extend its lease on the property where the records were being stored. Bachman then drafted two resolutions for the Burlington College board to approve.

One resolution gave the U.S. attorney permission to “review and take possession” of the records being stored by the Agency of Education. The second authorized the Agency of Education to destroy any records that remain in its possession. Both are signed by Burlington College board Chair Yves Bradley and dated Dec. 28.

Van de Graaf and another lawyer with the U.S. attorney’s office began sifting through the Burlington College records Jan. 4, according to the emails.

On Feb. 2, Bachman told Van de Graaf that FBI special agent Patrick Hanna had requested an additional month to review the Burlington College records. She asked Van de Graaf to make sure he had the records he needed before March 1, so the state could begin shredding whatever remained.

The FBI spokesman VTDigger spoke with declined to say what Hanna does for the bureau.

Bachman said this week that the Agency of Education has now destroyed the remaining nonacademic records from Burlington College.

Bradley, the board chair, said Thursday that he was aware of an FBI investigation into Burlington College for more than a year. He said he and other board members were informed of the inquiry by Coralee Holm, who was at that time dean of operations and advancement.

Holm and others connected to the college were subpoenaed by the FBI, according to Bradley. Agents told Holm she could inform the board of trustees that an investigation was taking place, but she was directed not to provide any further information, Bradley said.

Holm, who is now public information officer for South Burlington, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Bradley said he had no contact with the FBI or U.S. attorney — except through the college’s lawyer — and was not aware of who else was subpoenaed.

Public records?

Toensing said he still believes the records the agency held should have been released.

On Dec. 19, the Education Agency told him in an email that it was “in the process of returning the records to the college,” and his request for access was denied on the grounds that “these are not the agency’s records, but rather the records of a private corporate entity.”

Toensing, who was already embroiled in three public records lawsuits with the state, chose not to appeal the decision, despite disagreeing with it. “These records were acquired in the course of agency business, which makes them public records under the law,” he said.

Griffin, at the attorney general’s office, who is battling Toensing over public records on other fronts, said that only the academic records from Burlington College were obtained in the course of agency business, and therefore the denial was justified.

“In the course of business you look at the statutory authority and responsibility of the Agency of Education, and they focus on academic records,” Griffin said Thursday. “The other records belong to the college.”

Toensing said he believes it was misleading for the state to say it was in the process of returning the records to Burlington College.

“I understood the denial as telling me that the records were on their way back to Burlington College. Looking back, I believe this impression was intentionally created to dissuade me from pursuing these records,” Toensing said.

“The state now routinely engages in a taxpayer-funded war of attrition to block access to public records,” he added.

The loan fallout

“These records are of significant public interest because they are relevant to an improper loan that led directly to the college’s demise,” Toensing said.

Bradley, the board chair, said he has no information about what the FBI is investigating. Still, he speculated that the probe indeed relates to the school’s purchase of its former North Avenue campus.

“At the end of the day, it’s got to relate back to the purchase of the land by the college,” he said.

Burlington College
Burlington College board President Yves Bradley, center. At right is Jane Knodell, a fellow board member. File photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

Two other board members, Tom Torti, with the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Jane Knodell, Burlington City Council president, said they had had no contact with the FBI and were aware of the federal investigation only through the resolutions approved in December.

Torti said he too suspected, based on “rumors” he had heard, that the investigation related to the 2010 purchase of the Burlington College campus.

Asked to describe the rumors, Torti said they related to “the purchase of Burlington College and how the money came about, going back to what a lot of us scratched our heads about who came to the board after (the purchase), which was what were they thinking and how did this all make sense financially.”

Jane Sanders, wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., overstated donation amounts in a bank application for a $6.7 million loan the college used to purchase a prime 33-acre property on Lake Champlain in 2010.

She told People’s United Bank in 2010 that the college had $2.6 million in pledged donations to support the purchase of the former Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington property.

The college, however, received only $676,000 in actual donations from 2010 through 2014, according to figures provided by Burlington College.

Two people whose pledges are listed as confirmed in the loan agreement told VTDigger that their personal financial records show their pledges were overstated. Neither was aware the pledges were used to secure the loan.

Jane Sanders did not respond to a request for comment Thursday asking whether she was subpoenaed or otherwise contacted by the FBI or the U.S. attorney in relation to her time as president of the college.

Projected increases in enrollment at the college never occurred, and as the college’s finances began to crumble, the school began to sell off its property to developer Eric Farrell. Farrell, who is expected to own the entire property — minus 12 acres he sold to the city for a park — recently received city approval for a massive residential development on the land.

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  • Carroll Billado

    Bernie and Jane now own three properties in Vermont, a lake side property of Lake Champlain cost over $600,000 dollars, where did the Sanders get this large amount of money. I believe as a democrat Senator you must be swimming in special interest monies.

    • Elise Eaton

      Or private pay-off money from the likes of The Clintons or maybe some of the former Burlington College board with significant real estate interests

    • Paul Drayman

      You must be living in the FOX News bubble if you think that Republicans are not living it up on special interest. If you follow the information available from numerous sources, the Sanders sold their interest in a family property to buy the Lake Champlain property. Not unusual at all.
      U.S. Senators get around $175,000 salary plus a very generous benefit package. Mrs. Sanders is or has been employed as well, so they are going to live a little better than the average person.
      Why not stop making outrageous comments and accusations (not just you, but most others here, as well) and follow real issues such as the subject of this article. Did Mrs. Sanders fraudulently apply for the loan for the College to buy that property from the Catholic Church? What was the purpose of buying that land when the school was already (I believe) in financial trouble?

    • Gail Graham

      They have NO shame, and think we are too stupid to see through them, which really tics me off!

    • Donna Boutin

      5 homes, and a condo in DC..but he’s poor..

    • Paul Drayman

      BTW Bernie is not a Democrat; one of the main reasons why the DNC was not happy that he decided to run as a Democrat. He knew he would have gotten absolutely nowhere running as an Independent.

  • Jeremy Meister

    Wow – big liberal socialists are ripping off everyone and getting away with it.

    It pays to have friends in government, especially when they’re connected to your husband. 🙂

  • Jeremy Meister

    That’s fine, they won’t rip us off when her husband is president.

  • Bill Jefferson

    Has anybody in the Sanders Family ever produced anything of value in the real world, or even held a real job not requiring suckling on the taxpayer teat?

  • Keith Griffiths

    Where will the next generation of coat makers be trained. I’m getting tired of the FBI ruining stuff.

  • Dom Sanderson

    They need to investigate the 650k Bernie and his wife paid in cash for a lake house on Champlain. How much money did she steal from the defunct college???

    • Tim Vincent

      That’s not a problem.
      Just the benefit of being a life long “public servant.”
      In other words, a career politician avoiding work for a lifetime – and living like the 1%.

      • Gail Graham

        Yes-and according to reliable sources, apparently when he did have a job(s) in his younger years, he was “let go” because of lack of “work ethics”, ie. not performing even menial jobs, ie. in the 60s-until he became Mayor of Burlington!

    • Jeffrey Grinnell

      You do know that the Champlain lakefront home was financed by the sale of a home in Maine that Mrs. Sanders had inherited and sold don’t you?

      • Dom Sanderson

        Do you know how much the sale of home in Maine netted them? Maybe you should look it up before you type. I’ll give you a hint- it might cover the closing costs and first years taxes on the Champlain house.

      • Matt Young

        Not all of it, or even close

      • Valerie Mullin

        She said “she sold her share of her family’s long-time vacation home in Bridgton, Maine, to her brother for $150,000″ A far cry from $650.000

        • Jeffrey Grinnell

          She also used some money from her retirement account as well as money they received as an advance for a book that Bernie is writing.

          All this was published in the Burlington Free Press, but you folks would rather entertain conspiracy theories.

      • Ricky Lehey

        Nice story bro. I have a house on the beach in sunny south Dakota for sale … You interested?

  • John Robi

    Why the rush to shred docs during an active investigation?

    • Gail Graham

      Always suspicious.

  • John Robi

    “Agency officials said they found the school’s records in disarray, in part because of an unsolved burglary.”
    THIS didn’t raise a few red flags??

  • Ken Melton

    Well, well, well. Ole Bernie’s wife was and is under investigation for possible fraud. Interesting…

    • Johnny Kay

      I wonder what her qualifications were to be president of a college. . .

      • Gail Graham

        I-also-have wondered about that way back when she obtained the job. If I recall correctly, she once held an “administrative position” at Goddard College. If any of you aren’t familiar with THAT college, I would be happy to share, as I live 7-8 miles from it, and have since the early 50s.

  • Ronald Pulliam

    Bernie told her to just make up whatever numbers she needs to balance the budget. That’s what he does.

  • Tom Menino

    Typical Dem hypocrisy. Doing the sleazy things that they claim Repubs do, and then some.

    • Neil Johnson

      Interesting how this investigation has been going on for more than a year and this is the first we heard of it. Never brought up by the press during is campaign for President.

  • Ty Harris

    That’s blatant fraud that would get the average citizen landed in federal prison. She is rich, white, elite, and politically connected at the highest levels. She will skate free and clear.

    • Elise Eaton

      Keep that in mind if Bernie runs again…

  • williamberry1

    I wonder if this relates in any way with the vacation property the Sanders purchased, also on Lake Chaplain.

    • Elaine Farrell

      No doubt it’s a parcel that was part of the church land, purchased with the loan & then sold as residential development.

  • Eva_Galley

    In the Sanders’ case, I guess “free stuff” also includes the local bank’s money they obtained under false premises. Vermont voters need to take a hard look at who represents them.

    • Ty Harris

      Reminds me of the missing Rose law firm billing records from Hillary’s whitewater scandal – which i dont recall the media mentioning one time during the campaign. You think the network news people didnt know about this? I gaurantee you they did and sat on the story.

  • Pete Kholer

    This is investigative journalism. Outstanding. Thanks!

  • Matthew Mosier

    After all of the talk and accusations about Trump University you’d think this would be in the headlines… (and no, I’m not actually silly enough to think that the media cares about corruption)

  • Bruce Goodmansen

    And oh how the Democrats cried foul about Trump University.

  • Jake Fontaine

    That’s the socialist MO: get a nice paycheck while you bankrupt whatever you touch, cover it up with lies, then repeat. Toss in some BS about “good intentions” or the “public good” every once in a while — that’s the media’s cue to give you a pass.

  • Elaine Farrell

    Always was about flipping the church land for residential housing.. God knows who & how many people made millions on the deal. The loan was all scam as they intended to close the school all along.

  • Michelle Teller

    Clearly she was working with Putin to defeat Hillary.

  • Kevin Goldman

    Even if there is no fraud there is gross mismanagement.

  • Kevon Connelly

    Nothing will come of it. There was an unsolved burglary. Said it right there in the article. What are the chances that the burglary removed all the damaging evidence? Exactly.

  • Rick Green

    What is the Farrel/Sanders connection? Follow the money.

    • James Q Morrison

      It goes directly through the developer Tony Pomerleau (brother in law of Patrick Leahy. His people controlled the Board of Directors at Burlington College

  • Jo Lissa

    Bernie also illegally paid his Wife and step Daughter with campaign funds. But Obama DOJ looked the other way.

  • StevenRobert

    No wonder Bernie Sanders was campaigning on an issue of “free education” or something like that so students wouldn’t have to pay for their education.
    I’m still not sure where this case is going. Is it really all a scam to get the church land for a residential project. Who made the money? Was there any contact between the college president and the real estate developer prior to the loan?
    How big of a crime is it if she overstated the pledges?
    I suspect it would be some kind of fraud, perhaps bank fraud, or obtaining a loan through fraudulent means such as described in the article.
    Would Mrs. Sanders end up in jail if there is evidence of fraud?

  • Johnny Kay

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for an indictment of Jane Sanders.

    You or I lie on an application for a bank loan, and we are charged with fraud. Jane Sanders does it, and the result will be a statement similar to that made by FBI Director James Comey regarding the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which — among other things — included the physical destruction of records under subpoena:

    “Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” — James Comey, July 5, 2016

    • John Jensen

      No what Comey wants to say is that the FBI has found several violations that you plebes would go to jail for 50 years if you did it but because we are so much better than you and know whats right for you we will not prosecute. The FBI has lost all credibility.

  • Fredrick Stafford

    Dirty Democrat, as usual, “nothing to see here.”

  • Michael Mayher

    The air is thick with hypocrisy.

  • Teresa Sandstone

    Bernie stands for socialism which means your tax dollars should pay for his house on the lake. Being a politician is like hitting the lottery and us drones just keep working for nothing. This is the end result of Bernie’s (and the democrats’) socialist dream.

  • The Force

    Corrupt liberals in action

  • Robert Power

    The new vacation digs Bernie received had nothing to do with this. That was payment for not bringing to attention the illegal acts by CNN, Hilary and the DNC.

  • James Q Morrison

    Jane will get a Hillary-Pass

  • Dave Bishop

    Bernie has never had a real job. Being a politician isn’t a job, it’s a con. Ask Hillary or Liz Warren, they’ll tell you so.

  • zagnut64

    Three dollar suits and million dollar homes. Just another Senator getting rich off of the system, SHHHHH.

  • Michael Thompson

    Mrs sanders probabley got a 7% brokers fee for the property being sold to developer too! (sarc) but wouldnt be surprised…

  • Christopher Daniels

    what’s up with all the fake name accounts giving the large number of thumbs up? I’ve not seen any of these users here in the comments before. This suspiciously looks like gaming of the system here.

    • Scott Greene

      Breitbart must have picked up this story.

    • Glenn Thompson

      “what’s up with all the fake name accounts giving the large number of thumbs up?”

      Good Question….since I had to use my real name before being allowed to post here! That should also apply to those who wish to give a thumbs up/thumbs down rating. I would also suggest people post a pic of themselves so the rest of us can see who we are responding to. Transparency is important even on a format such as this.

  • Christopher Daniels

    “In January 2016, after reporting by VTDigger showing former Burlington College President Jane Sanders overstated pledged donations in applying for a loan so the school could purchase its former North Avenue campus.”

    Mr. True, this is a very loaded statement, because it directly accuses Ms. Sanders of fraud to get the loan. In the original reporting, this was always hinted at, but never directly stated. Do you have some evidence now that shows this to be true? I never saw anything in the original reporting that showed why there was an overstatement, why pledges failed to become actual donations, and how the rate of failure differed from pledge failure rates at other colleges.

  • Peter Everett

    Socialism is for the people, not the Socialist.

  • marty martin

    Bernie took her to the soviet Union on their honeymoon, so the Russians were involved here also. They were playing every option in case Bernie, Donald, or Hillary won. How do I know? The guy who set up Hillary’s secret server was named Vlad.

  • Patricia Whitty

    All we heard about Trump U and the dems have this bug-a-boo hiding?!

  • Burton Allan Johnson

    Oh dear, how does one explain this?

    Incidentally, I recall a news report–not from the knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping right–
    that shortly after the election, Bernie acquired a $500,000 yacht. How? Is he a trust-fund liberal/leftist/socialist? Did his wife buy it for him? Did Hillary?

    I think I’m going to have an attack of the vapors. Please pass the smelling salts.

    Burton Johnson

    • Walt Waisath

      Nope, nothing about him buying (or ending up with) a yacht, not even from right-wing sites. He did purchase a $600K house on Lake Champlain, but he sold a waterfront house in Maine that was in his family to pay for it. I doubt that means much more than he traded one house for another.

  • Scott Greene

    It’s the screws of retribution, the feds, justice, ICE wasting resources on our little state, to punish us for our solid electoral votes and the flea we put in the ear of america (sanders). Who has been the gadfly of Wall Street? The thorns in Sessions side. Sanders, Leahy……..

    What about the “other” investigation that is supposed to be underway, where a foreign entity co-opts our government via the old Oil seduction?

    Burlington College overcommitted and its future was apparently mismanaged by its trustees and past presidents and a lack of due diligence on the lenders part. They folded and lost a beautiful piece of property. So did the catholic church, what party do they belong too?

    You right wingers are much more palatable when you are on the side of Joe the plumber, or railing against the jack booted thugs.

  • John Dillon

    Ah, yes. The socialist’ life under the microscope. Notice I didn’t say democratic socialist because he’s not one. Oh well, if the dem party wouldn’t have cheated you, you might be president now. Too bad, so sad.

  • Nina Sage

    The college elite, obviously thinks it’s smarter than the law, and the public. Maybe they are. maybe their not.

  • Brooke Paige

    Many of the comments raise questions of about Jane and Bernie’s wealth and attempt to draw the conclusion that the purchase of their lakefront home is somehow directly linked to missing funds at Burlington College – there is no evidence to support such speculation. It is true that Ms. Sanders did have a substantial salary and a very generous expense accounts and one of the Sanders children went on a very expensive trip to South America at the college’s expense during her tenure – all of this has been previously reported.

    Was I the only one who noticed the Bernie stopped criticizing the millionaires a couple of years ago and instead started to vilify the “billionaires” ?

    Regardless of their protests to the contrary, the Sanders ARE millionaires (having wealth well in excess of $2M) who can easily afford their row house in D.C., a nice house in Burlington and the shabby cabin on Lake Champlain – a fact easily verified by media reports summarized in this linked post “What’s Bernie Worth?” at :

  • So the FBI was investigating all the President’s Candidates, but decided to double down on Hillary Clinton, and only Hillary Clinton.

    • Paul Drayman

      There is (was?) definitely something to that !

  • Bruce Wilkie

    This comment section has been targeted by the Breitbart trolls.

    • Walter Reilly

      No, it’s just a bunch of individuals, not socialists.

  • Liberius Lucanus

    So much for free speech…