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Investigating Nothing: The Jane Sanders-FBI Non-Controversy

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As Senator Bernie Sanders rallies millions around the country, baffled neoliberal Democrats, seemingly unable to move beyond the sting of Hillary Clinton’s November defeat, have found comity with an unlikely ally: the Republican Party—specifically the Vermont Republicans and their vice-chairman Brady Toesning.

A new report has been making the rounds on Twitter and Democratic Facebook groups, involving Jane Sanders, the FBI, and Burlington College. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

So the story goes, the FBI is investigating Jane Sanders because in 2010, while she was president of Burlington College, she masterminded a plan to defraud a bank of $6.7 million to construct a new campus for her college. However, this scheme ultimately failed, and caused the school to go bankrupt, hurting investors and students alike.

Yes Jane Sanders, wife of St. #Bernard is under ##FBI investigation for white collar crimeS which he may have had a hand In. @funder#resistpic.twitter.com/JUR9m8xuxn— Erin #Resistance (@ErinLOLiver) May 1, 2017
(Or married to a person under investigation. The same person who couldn't find the other person's goddamn tax returns.)— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) April 28, 2017
Schadenfreude
noun
The state of glee you experience when you learn Jane Sanders is under FBI investigation— Molly (@bitchyologist) April 28, 2017

There's just one problem with this story: it isn't true. The FBI is not investigating Jane Sanders, so far as anyone in the press has been made aware of. If that changes, Paste will of course, update this article.

What is true is that in 2010, Sanders, then president of Burlington College, signed off on a $6.7 million bank loan application to People's United Bank, in order to purchase land for a new campus—a project widely credited with causing the school's bankruptcy. It is also true that on that application, pledged donations were overstated.

Enter the VTGOP vice-chairman. Toensing, also a junior partner at diGenova and Toensing, a DC law firm with a reputation for slinging mud at Democrats (Victoria Toensing, Brady's mother and senior partner at the firm, was a prominent voice from the right during the Benghazi boondoggle), filed a formal complaint in January of 2016, with the U.S. Attorney alleging willful misconduct by Sanders, which prompted the DOJ investigation into the school's closure.

“Jane Sanders, as president of the college, successfully and intentionally engaged in a fraudulent scheme to actively conceal and misrepresent material facts from a federal financial institution,” he alleged seemingly without basis (unless he has somehow learned to read minds).

Toensing denied that the move was motivated by partisanship. As a Republican, he claimed, he would have loved Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee due to his having “no national appeal.”

But that explanation feels thin. Polling consistently indicated that Sanders was by far, the strongest candidate in the race (from either party). Given that he is currently the most popular politician in the country, one is left to either question Toensing's political instincts or disbelieve him entirely.

The author of this piece tends to fall in the latter category as Toensing has made a career of attempting to scandalize Democratic and progessive politicians through borderline frivolous complaints to law enforcement. This wouldn't even be the first time he's had Sanders in his crosshairs.

In August of 2016, the VTGOP vice-chairman accused the progressive leader of violating federal campaign finance laws after Sanders sent out an email encouraging his network of supporters to split donations between his campaign and those of eight other like-minded candidates seeking office around the country. One of those was Chris Pearson of Burlington. As Seven Days reported, the email, which said “Chris is a good friend of working people and of mine,” helped Pearson secure a flood of donations, and win his state house seat.

Toensing's complaint to Vermont Attorney General, William “Bill” Sorrell, who had himself been the subject of six dead-end Toensing complaints in 2015 (also for alleged campaign finance violations), stated that Sanders' email list represented an in-kind contribution given the huge fundraising advantage it had allowed Pearson. That neither Sanders nor the Vermont state house candidate had reported it as such, he attested, was a violation of the law.

Sorrell disagreed, and declined to pursue the matter.

“This was a fundraising letter that was sent nationally on behalf of legislative candidates from around the country,” he told VTDigger in September. “No doubt it went to some Vermonters, but nowhere in the letter does it say to vote for Chris Pearson.”

What is fascinating about this latest iteration of Toensing-inspired hysteria is how simultaneously, so much attention has been paid to the headlines, and yet so little effort has gone into fact-checking the tenuous extrapolation they are based on—something the controversy-generating Toesning seems to be proud of:

Emails reveal FBI, Justice probe of Burlington College – VTDigger https://t.co/wrPwv7EyTT— Brady Toensing (@BradyToensing) April 27, 2017
Officials: FBI Investigating Burlington College Land Deal Brokered By Jane O'Meara Sanders https://t.co/WsCOJvdxp0— Brady Toensing (@BradyToensing) May 3, 2017
Feds in Florida: Burlington College Probe Goes the Distance https://t.co/YgOBpYbQOb— Brady Toensing (@BradyToensing) May 3, 2017

In cases like this, it is important to get the facts straight.

Thus far, the FBI and U.S. Attorney have declined to comment on any activities relating to Burlington College’s closure. “Standard procedure is, I’m not at liberty to say anything,” a spokesperson for the Bureau’s Albany field office told Paste.

Jane Sanders and several prominent former members of the college’s board have not been contacted by law enforcement. Whether or not this is a “yet” situation is unclear because, thus far, the only evidence linking said investigation to Sanders’ land deal is hearsay—the word of two of the school’s former board members.

While it is unclear at this point what will come of the investigation, if Toensing’s past work is any indication, we should at least be prepared for a nothingburger.

It is revealing that this story has so permeated neoliberal and Republican circles. Indeed, it is evidence that Sanders’ movement’s growing strength is leading to some strange alliances. As progressivism takes root across the country, those alliances are likely to become permanent.

And that could signify a major shift in America’s political landscape.

**

Update: Toensing’s initial complaint alleged harm on behalf of a Catholic Church which has since denied that any such harm was done.

Update: Jeff Weaver, a top Sanders advisor, told CBS News that Sen. Sanders has retained counsel for both he and his wife to represent them during the federal probe. This suggests the investigation has reached them. That said, the demand for establishing criminality is showing intent, or at least knowledge, which will be a high bar to clear.

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