Not everyone is happy about Senator Bernie Sanders’ rise to national prominence in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s devastating November defeat. Now the most popular politician in the country; the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is still making the rounds, promoting his progressive agenda.
This has united both the right and the neoliberal left in opposition to his movement.
One person who has become a champion for both groups is Vermont GOP and Trump campaign chair, Brady Toensing—the man whose complaint to the U.S. Attorney sparked the recent FBI investigation into the closure of Burlington College and potential bank fraud linked to then president Jane Sanders.
A junior partner at the DC law firm, diGenovo & Toensing—known for its involvement in the Benghazi media frenzy—Toensing is a right-wing operative whose modus operandi involves filing borderline frivolous complaints with law enforcement in order to scandalize progressive and Democratic officials.
He’s tried to take down Senator Sanders before, filing a complaint with Vermont’s Attorney General, Bill Sorrell, in 2016, alleging campaign finance violations. Sanders had sent out an email to supporters encouraging them to split donations between his campaign and that of another Vermont progressive, which Toensing claimed was an in-kind contribution that should have been reported. Sorrell, who had himself been the target of six similar Toensing complaints, disagreed, and declined to pursue the matter.
Undeterred, Toensing bided his time for the next opportunity— which came when VTDigger reported a story that Jane Sanders, as president of Burlington College, had overstated the amount the school had raised in pledged donations to purchase land for a new campus on a bank loan application. The deal, which Sanders orchestrated, was widely credited with bankrupting the college.
Toensing filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Attorney in January of 2016—coincidentally the same period that Donald Trump came to Burlington, Vermont for a campaign rally— accusing Jane Sanders of bank fraud, alleging harm on behalf of a Catholic church which has since repudiated his allegation.
In March, he followed up with another letter claiming that Senator Sanders had used his influence to improperly pressure the bank into making the loan, offering only hearsay for evidence. Although the church denied any harm, the investigation was nonetheless launched.
Until recently, there was a question as to whether or not the land deal was the subject of the investigation, and whether Mrs. Sanders would be interviewed by law enforcement. However, it was recently revealed that Bernie and Jane Sanders have retained counsel.
Needless to say Republicans—and neoliberal Democrats— have had a field day with the news.
Crazy Bernie Sanders thinks everything should be free. Guess he got tired of waiting and committed bank fraud. https://t.co/a1Duph2Mml
— Unnamed source (@Gregmichael78) June 25, 2017
Bernie Sanders and Jane Sanders are under investigation by the FBI for fraud and this isn't a headline? Typical.
— Ryan Fournier (@RyanAFournier) June 24, 2017
This could be why the Sanders only released 1 year of tax returns.https://t.co/x4a3Nbil13
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) June 24, 2017
Seems like Bernie Sanders & his wife may also be crooks—although not in the Clintons' league https://t.co/JPjKbGRL1F
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) June 24, 2017
Progressives would be howling if this was Hillary, but it's Saint Bernard so crickets.https://t.co/rj5KgoCGBS
— Steph Bello (@steph_bello) June 23, 2017
— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) June 23, 2017
Bernie Sanders and Jane Sanders, I'm asking for a friend, is this FBI investigation for bank fraud separate or collective?
— Mr. Weeks (@MrDane1982) June 24, 2017
Bernie Bank Fraud Excuses – Please Retweet and Reply to add your own????
— Sally Albright (@SallyAlbright) June 24, 2017
Jane Sanders is The Worst, but God sendeth rain on the just & unjust alike, and sexism falleth also on ladies who are The Worst sometimes. https://t.co/qwnZ6E0eAr
— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) June 25, 2017
At this point, the progressive left has been circling the wagons, but many are quietly wondering if the investigation could be a real problem going forward.
However, it would be surprising if any charges were recommended by law enforcement at the end of all of this.
That is because bank fraud is not a strict liability offense, meaning it requires intent—specifically intent to defraud (though not necessarily intent to defraud a bank, as the Supreme Court recently unanimously held in the 2016 case of Shaw v. United States). In other words, it is not enough if Jane submitted a loan application to the bank with incorrect information—unless of course, she knew at the time, that the information was false.
This determination will depend on the totality of the circumstances, but even in cases where it seems obvious, it isn’t.
For example, Hillary Clinton was able to avoid charges for sending and receiving classified emails over her private, in-home server because she claimed that she was unaware that she had done so. Even though she exclusively used a private email address during her tenure at the State Department, the FBI deemed there was not enough to demonstrate criminal intent.
With this in mind, it is a fairly safe bet that Jane Sanders is likely to avoid any legal issues, provided there is no smoking gun or credible witness testimony indicating that her actions were something more than an unintentional mistake.
As for Toensing’s allegations of impropriety on the part of Senator Sanders—in which he claimed the former presidential campaign used his Senate position to influence to put “improper pressure” on the bank to approve the loan— they too are unlikely to succeed given the lack of evidence.
All told, this FBI investigation has all the makings of a witch hunt to discredit the biggest threat to President Donald Trump and the Democratic establishment (and, mind you, the FBI investigation was launched under former President Barack Obama).
Neoliberal Democrats may come to rue the day they signed on with the GOP, if the one person who can stop their new ally is sufficiently tarnished.