WASHINGTON • A federal probe into a land deal by Senator Bernie Sanders' wife is threatening to take some of the lustre off his 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".
Senator Sanders, a Vermont independent, is still riding high on popularity from his presidential campaign. 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, has hired a lawyer to represent her as the federal authorities look into a US$10 million (S$14 million) sale of about 13ha of lakefront property by the Roman Catholic diocese of Burlington to Burlington College. Mrs Sanders was hoping to relocate and expand the institution.
The couple and their supporters maintain that the probe is politically motivated and that it was set in motion by the Vermont state chairman for Mr Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Mr Brady Toensing, who filed a complaint with the local US attorney's office in January last year on behalf of the diocese's parishioners.
But the facts in the case do not fit well with Mr Sanders' populist image. The charges revolve around a US$6.5 million bank loan, obtained with a promise that college donors would quickly pay back at least US$2.6 million of the debt. They did not, Mrs Sanders was ousted, and the college went belly up.
Mr Sanders' fans and Democratic strategists agree the probe, no matter its outcome, could be used by operatives in both parties to undermine him. Rival Democrats could use it to try to wrest the progressive mantle from the senator.
"Just the fact this is hanging over them could be used," said Ms Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, a liberal organisation formed by people close to Mr Sanders.
The facts in the case do not fit well with Mr Sanders' populist image. The charges revolve around a US$6.5 million bank loan, obtained with a promise that college donors would quickly pay back at least US$2.6 million of the debt.
"I would hope voters would dig deeper, but sometimes people don't," she added.
Mrs Sanders is taking the probe seriously and is worried that the Trump administration might not treat her fairly, said Mr Jeff Weaver, who was Mr Sanders' campaign manager.