A major donor to Burlington College said Friday the educational institution would have survived had its leaders followed through on plans to sell a portion of its new property.
Crea Lintilhac said she was “disappointed and sad” the college had to close last year because of the debt taken on by a land purchase and significant expansion proposed by college leaders.
Lintilhac told VTDigger she was interviewed by the FBI six months ago about her foundation’s $120,000 donation to help the small liberal arts college finance the land deal.
Federal authorities are investigating claims that former college president Jane Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., inflated the amount of pledges to bank officials while obtaining a $6.7 million loan from People’s United Bank. Jane Sanders said the college had $2.6 million in confirmed pledges. As of 2014, $676,000 was paid as part of that campaign.
Several donors have told VTDigger their pledge amount was overstated or misrepresented, including a donor who the college claimed would made a $1 million gift that she said instead was a bequest upon her death.
Lintilhac said the amount of her pledge was accurately presented, but that the college’s records were sloppy and incomplete.
Burlington College bought 33 acres of property in Burlington, some of it lakefront, from the Roman Catholic Diocese in 2010 for $10 million. Sanders was ousted in 2011.
The Lintilhac Foundation has supported Burlington College since 2007. The foundation gives out $1 million a year from its $20 million asset base to organizations that promote water quality, alternative energy and education programs, as well as others.
Lintilhac recalled Friday she toured the new land with Jane Sanders around the time of the 2010 land purchase and supported the college’s ambitious expansion plan. The idea all along, as Lintilhac understood it, was to sell off a portion of the 33 acres to pay down the debt, similar to the model Shelburne Farms followed when it purchased 3,000 acres and sold off some it privately to pay for renovations, Lintilhac said.
“This is a perhaps a calamity, but it served the community and the students very well while it was an operating college,” Lintilhac said. “Perhaps some of the calamity could have been averted” had school leaders sold off part of the land or met with major donors after Sanders’ departure.
After Sanders left in 2011, Lintilhac said she never heard from the succeeding presidents, Christine Plunkett or Carol Moore. Lintilhac said she was surprised the new leaders didn’t convene a meeting of donors, nor did they apparently seriously pursue efforts to sell off a part of the property as Sanders had sought to do.
“The effort to sell property, to move forward with Burlington College, languished,” Lintilhac said. “It languished. Apparently.”
Lintilhac said the college leaders needed to “be devoted and prioritize land sales immediately to face the reality they couldn’t possibly pay the bills without selling some of the land, that was lakefront, with world class views.”
“That was always a part of the plan. It was obvious” and the assumption upon which she made her donation, she said.
Ultimately, with the college in deep financial trouble, developer Eric Farrell bought 27 acres in 2014 and an additional 6 acres the following year, leaving the college with only a small piece of property when it closed its doors last year.
Local real estate developer Tony Pomerleau, who helped finance the land purchase, told VTDigger he advised Sanders to sell off a portion of the property. Frank Cioffi of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. said he pursued a deal with Sanders to sell off a part of the land that never went through.
Lintilhac said she had no regrets about supporting the college. She said problems at Burlington College highlight that board members of nonprofits “need to pay closer attention” to what is going on inside their institutions.
“I don’t think there was any malfeasance,” she said of the board of trustees. “I think it was a lack of attentiveness to the necessity” to pursue a sale of some of the land.
Lintilhac has not been contacted by the FBI since she was interviewed about six months ago, she said. At that time, she said, she was asked only about her pledge and whether she could help identify any of the other donors, who were represented by initials in the documents she looked at when she met with federal authorities.
She said she was surprised the authorities had no record of her donation in the college records they obtained and that she provided federal authorities with copies of paperwork from her foundation outlining its financial support.
(DISCLOSURE: Lintilhac serves on the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, which oversees VTDigger and is a financial contributor.)