A donor says that former Burlington College President Jane Sanders mischaracterized the terms of a gift the donor planned to give the institution.
Corinne Bove Maietta, a member of the famed Burlington Bove’s Restaurant family, said she agreed to give the college an unspecified amount upon her death.
Documents show, however, that Sanders put her down for a series of cash payments.
In an interview with VTDigger.org, Maietta said she never agreed to make a series of payments to the college while she was alive, as Sanders claimed in documents provided to a bank. Maietta’s pledge and pledges from other donors were used as collateral.
Maietta, 83, said she was recently interviewed about her donations to Burlington College by an investigator with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).
According to several sources, the Department of Justice is looking into the loan Burlington College obtained to purchase property in Burlington owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese.
That purchase is blamed for the financial downfall and closing of the college last year.
Sanders, the wife of U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appears to have counted Maietta’s bequest as a cash gift that was available as collateral to finance the land deal. The 2010 loan agreement says “CBM” pledged $1 million to the school over five years in increments of $150,000, with a final payment of $100,000 in year six.
In an interview, Maietta was incredulous that Burlington College would try to use her bequest to secure a bank loan. “You can’t borrow money on the future,” she said. “That doesn’t exist.”
When she heard how her pledge was listed in the loan document, she was surprised. “They had me in increments? No, never,” Maietta said.
Maietta, who was interviewed by a federal investigator at her home in West Palm Beach, Florida, said she agreed to give the school donations in addition to the bequest. She said she gave less than $100,000.
Maietta was adamant that she never signed anything with the college, despite Sanders personally asking her to do so. She said she didn’t include Burlington College in her will until almost a year after the college purchased the diocese land.
Sanders did not return a call Wednesday requesting comment.
“I remember Jane asking if I would sign something, and I said, ‘I never sign anything. You’ll have to go through my accountant,’” Maietta said.
After writing Sanders a check, Maietta said she offered to leave the college something in her will. “I never told them how much, and I never signed anything. … It was all on my word,” she said.
Representations Sanders made in the loan agreement with People’s United Bank are now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to two former college employees who have had contact with the FBI. Federal officials have declined to comment on whether an investigation is underway, citing policy.
In January 2016, Republican lawyer Brady Toensing made a formal request to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont and the Inspector General of the FDIC for a fraud investigation based on VTDigger’s reporting.
The FBI is now asking questions about whether Sanders falsified information on loan documents, according to Carol Moore, the last president of the college.
The loan provided by People’s United Bank allowed Burlington College to finance the $10.7 million purchase of a lakefront campus from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
Sanders told the bank the college had $2.6 million in confirmed pledges from 31 people, including $1 million from “CBM.” But that gift was a bequest — not cash.
Michael Luck, whom Sanders hired to serve as a vice president to assist with the college’s fundraising efforts, has said there was only one $1 million gift, and it was made as a bequest. Luck said he was only involved in fundraising, and he was not aware how the pledges were represented in loan documents.
Most of the confirmed pledges never materialized, and the college received only $676,000 in actual donations from 2010 through 2014.
Luck told VTDigger in 2015 that the $1 million bequest was backed by an agreement signed by the donor and her attorney.
At the time, Luck would not confirm the donor’s identity, saying the gift was supposed to be anonymous until the time of her death. Luck has not returned multiple phone calls in the past week seeking comment on the federal probe.
Richard Moss, Maietta’s longtime accountant, said he, too, recalled Burlington College officials urging Maietta to sign a pledge agreement.
“They wanted it all up front of course. I felt a lot of pressure to get it immediately. That’s their job. Bird in hand, you know?” Moss said.
Moss said he saw draft versions of an agreement but never a signed a document. “Certainly if I were a banker, I would have wanted to see the signed agreement,” he said.
In the draft versions Moss reviewed, the agreement was for a gift at the time of Maietta’s death. It stipulated that any voluntary donations given before her death would be subtracted from the total gift amount, he said.
Moss said an FBI agent working out of Vermont called him and asked for Maietta’s address in Florida saying that an investigator from the FDIC, whom the agent was working with on the case, was planning to interview her.
Jonathan Leopold, who was a Burlington College trustee at the time of the land purchase, said he was told the $1 million donor had a “terminal illness,” which meant the money would be available soon.
“Happily for that person, they lived far beyond the expectations,” Leopold said.
Maietta said she never had a terminal condition and is still in good health.
Moss said he recalled that she may have had some health problems at that time, but there was nothing life-threatening that he was aware of.
Asked why the pledge was listed in increments, Leopold responded, “I really can’t answer that.” He said there may have been discussions about listing it that way in anticipation of receiving the bequest.
“I know that particular donor, probably about a year after making a commitment, she began to question whether Burlington College would be successful, and that led, as I understood it, to a rescission of that commitment,” Leopold said.
Maietta said she had stopped cutting checks to Burlington College, partly based on advice she got from Moss. “He said, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re going to go belly up,’” she said.
Moss said he didn’t necessarily tell Maietta to stop giving the college money, so much as he floated the idea of leaving money in her will as a hedge against the possibility that the college might fail in its effort at expansion.
He said he had a gut feeling that the college was overextended, and by deferring the gift until her death, Maietta would be less likely to put money toward a lost cause.
In 2014, Christine Plunkett, who succeeded Sanders as Burlington College president, told WCAX in an interview about Maietta’s gift that “the understanding at the time was that it was a cash gift and we proceeded until we understood it was a bequest.”
Plunkett was vice president for finance at Burlington College and signed the loan agreement with Sanders.
Maietta said she had a personal relationship with Plunkett and was dismayed by how students and faculty treated Plunkett in 2014. When she was forced to resign under pressure from student protests, Maietta decided to remove Burlington College from her will.
Sanders had ambitious plans to expand at the lakefront property on North Avenue and increase enrollment and tuition income at Burlington College when she went before the Vermont Education and Health Buildings Finance Agency to secure the bonds backed by the People’s United Bank loan.
The college borrowed heavily to buy the former Catholic headquarters and was never able to increase enrollment.
The college shut down in May 2016 under what it called its “crushing weight of debt.” The Vermont Economic Development Authority lost $145,000, the diocese was out at least $1.5 million, and People’s United Bank — which was owed $6.7 million — recouped much of its money by selling the property to a developer.
VTDigger has asked current and former Burlington College officials repeatedly over the last two years for documentation of the confirmed pledges listed in the 2010 loan agreement, but no such records were ever produced.
Other donors have maintained that Sanders overstated the amounts of their donations.
As VTDigger reported in 2015, Ron Leavitt, a semi-retired surgeon who briefly took his late wife’s post as a trustee, is listed as confirmed for $60,000 in two donations. However, his personal financial records show he only gave $30,000, and Leavitt has said he never formally agreed to give the second $30,000 donation.
Seven Days reports that agents interviewed Leavitt at his home in Naples, Florida.
If a signed agreement between Maietta and the school exists, it’s likely the Department of Justice has it now. FBI Agents subpoenaed Burlington College records last year, and the agency has spent at least 15 months reviewing those records and records the state took possession of after the college closed.