A federal investigation into a long-ago land deal by Senator Bernie Sanders’s wife is threatening to take some of the lustre off the senator’s populist appeal, attaching the phrase “bank fraud” to the biography of a politician practically sainted on the left for his stands against “millionaires and billionaires.”
Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent, is still riding high on popularity from his presidential campaign, delivering rousing speeches to cheering progressives in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
But he has been shadowed by talk of a deepening investigation into his wife’s role in a 2010 land deal for a Vermont college that ultimately contributed to her ouster as its president. His wife, Jane Sanders, has hired a lawyer to represent her as federal authorities look into a $10 million sale of about 33 acres of lakefront property by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to Burlington College. Ms. Sanders was hoping to relocate and expand the institution.
The couple and many of their supporters maintain that the investigation is politically motivated and that it was set in motion by the Vermont state chairman for Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, Brady Toensing, who filed a complaint with the local United States attorney’s office in January 2016 on behalf of the diocese’s parishioners.
But the facts in the case do not fit well with Mr. Sanders’s populist image. The charges revolve around a $6.5 million bank loan, that was obtained with a promise that college donors would quickly pay back at least $2.6 million of the debt. They did not, Ms. Sanders was ousted, and the college went belly up. The senator had already taken some grief last year for purchasing a $575,000 vacation home on Lake Champlain, to complement his house in Burlington and his rowhouse on Capitol Hill.
Sanders fans and Democratic strategists agree that the investigation, no matter its outcome, could be used by operatives in both parties to undermine the senator. Rival Democrats could use the case to try to wrest the progressive mantle from Mr. Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination yet refuses to join the Democratic Party.
“Just the fact that this is hanging over them could be used,” said Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, a liberal organisation formed by several people close to Mr. Sanders. “I would hope that voters would dig deeper, but sometimes people don’t. And they hear the word ‘F.B.I.’ and it sends a shiver up and down people’s spines.”
Mr. Sanders remains one of the most popular political figures in the country. Even Democrats who might want to push him aside understand that tarnishing the integrity of one of their biggest draws could make it harder for liberals to win elections in 2018 and 2020.
However, as Hillary Clinton’s experiences with her private email server and the 2012 attack in Benghazi show, prolonged investigations take a toll. And within the Sanders ranks, there is some talk of conspiracy.
RoseAnn Demoro, executive director of National Nurses United and a leading Sanders supporter, said she believed some in both parties were hoping the investigation would hurt Mr. Sanders because he is challenging the entire political establishment. “Bernie is the only person out there with a populist base who could actually win the presidency right now, and they are trying to take him out,” Ms. Demoro said.
Not everyone is so enamoured with Mr. Sanders’s continuing power. Stu Loeser, who owns a media strategy firm and was a longtime spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, said Mr. Sanders had missed his “once in a lifetime chance” to be president.