Philanthropist: Burlington College could have survived

Burlington College
Burlington College was sold at auction on July 12.

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.

Crea Lintilhac
Crea Lintilhac. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

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.

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

“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.)

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  • robert bristow-johnson

    it’s really too bad.

    there are lessons learned. lessons to learn.

    i wonder if someone (with money, vision, and sapience) can establish another college of art and craft in Burlington.

    • Thomas Sperry

      Why bother?

  • Christopher Daniels

    “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.”

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but this is the first time that VT Digger has described this issue as something they were told by donors. Up to now, it’s been VT Digger that’s made this claim of overstatement or misrepresentation as if it were fact supported by evidence and done so intentionally by Jane Sanders. This is a big difference. This is much better reporting.

    • Michael Dougherty

      Hi Christopher – this piece from May 2017 may help to clarify our prior reporting on that bequest:

    • Scott McCarty

      Digger has articulated on several occasions and from multiple people that their pledges we’re over stated. We should not let our devotion to Bernie color the facts of this.

      Not saying this is you, but I’ve noticed people attacking Seven Days, Digger, the Free Press and even VPR for reporting on this topic. This has been solid reporting and thorough. We should all be concerned that the FBI is investigating. I’m more concerned for the students and alumni of Burlington College along with the faculty. It’s really sad.

  • Jim White

    Part of the “calamity” is that in all of this process there was apparently no real consideration by educators, funders, politicians, etc. for the unique piece of land at the heart of it. Burlington will gain a limited amount of affordable housing (that will temporarily fill a real need until it doesn’t, then other sites will be found) as well as additional lakeside housing for the affluent, and a handful of people will get even more filthy rich than they already are. But the price will be destruction of a priceless gem of natural landscape. Where are the priorities?

  • Gary Murdock

    “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”
    Calamity Jane? Sorry, just couldn’t resist.

  • Jim Candon

    Burlington Telecon, Burlington College, Vt Health Connect- all progressive inventions that went bust. Bob Kiss, Pete Shumlin and Mrs Sanders.

  • Anthony Redington

    Seems Jane Sanders was pursuing a partial sale of the 33 acres as advised and would have placed Burlington College on a more solid footing–then she was fired, the Board that fired her then stopped pursuing a partial sale and failed spectacularly in that regard–malign neglect at best and the rest is history. No one comes out blameless but Jane Sanders less so and the Board and the leaders it selected the bulk of the blame, it died under their watch not Jan’s. We in the New and Old North End along with graduates and many affected students still grieve today. A tragic permanent economic and social loss! Yes, some housing which were to get anyway–but far more devastating, a dead college.

    • Matt Young

      Anthony, have you not heard any of the reports of miss Sanders overstating pledges and the huge golden parachute check she received as she lead the college to complete failure? Let’s be a little realistic here.

  • marjkramer

    This issue has been a hunt to discredit Bernie Sanders who has become one of the most powerful men in the country and who threatens the status quo, especially the Republican one. Thank you Mark Johnson and Elizabeth Hewitt and Crea Lintilhac for telling the other see of the story. Jane Sanders wanted to sell some of the land to pay for expenses then she was ousted.

  • Thomas Sperry

    What need was that?