Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been a loud and constant voice for socialist policies throughout his 30 years in Washington, D.C., a self-proclaimed champion of the collective good. But in researching my new book, "Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Political Elite," I discovered that while Sanders may talk about the common good, his public service has made him and his family quite wealthy.
Perhaps no one has benefited more from Sanders’s career in politics than his wife Jane.
When Bernie was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he appointed his then-girlfriend, Jane Driscoll, to head his administration’s Youth Office. Though the position was originally unpaid, Bernie eventually put Jane on the payroll over objections of the city council. The job was never advertised so that others could apply. A local paper noted that Sanders never bothered to provide evidence as to Jane’s “qualifications” for the position.
The appointment would remain a source of controversy for Sanders. After Bernie and Jane got married in 1988, his new wife received a big pay increase. As one local newspaper reported, “Political sparks flew at Burlington’s annual city meeting Monday night as Democratic aldermen raised a series of questions concerning a hefty pay raise for Mayor Bernie Sanders’ new wife and whether she should continue to hold her job as director of the Mayor’s Youth Office.”
After Bernie won election to Congress in 1990, Jane’s business ties to her husband rose to a new level.
In Washington, Jane became one of her husband’s top aides, serving at various times as his chief of staff, press secretary and political analyst. After a decade in Congress, Jane and family went about setting up a company that operated under three different names to provide income tied to Bernie’s political career.
On Sept. 27, 2000, the family formed Sanders & Driscoll LLC, a for-profit consulting company run by Jane, her daughter Carina, and son David. The business also operated under two trade names: Leadership Strategies and Progressive Media Strategies.
The fact that this entity and its aliases were formed just weeks before the 2000 election is significant. The Sanderses ran these out of their home on Killarney Drive in Burlington. These entities served as financial conduits to run cash to the Sanders family.
It is impossible to know precisely how much because Sanders' financial disclosure forms, which he is required to release as a member of Congress, only listed “more than $1,000” as the amount of income they earned from these consulting firms. We do know that some of Bernie’s campaign dollars flowed through the LLCs. While running for House reelection in the early 2000s, critics claimed, “Sanders doled out more than $150,000 to his wife and stepdaughter for campaign-related work between 2000 and 2004.”
Some of the campaign money flowing to the family from Bernie’s campaign came as Jane served as a “media buyer” for his reelection. Media buying is a murky but potentially highly lucrative stream of income for those involved in political campaigns. Modern American political campaigns spend large sums of money on television and other forms of media. A media buyer handles the purchase of airtime and secures the contracts with media outlets.
Typically, a media buyer receives a commission of about 15 percent of the cost for a media campaign. So if a campaign were to spend, say, $1,000,000 on television ads, the media buyer would pocket a $150,000 commission. But here’s the kicker: the media buyer commission is not actually disclosed anywhere. Filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) only require disclosure of the bulk amount of the media buy. In this example, the FEC report will only disclose the $1,000,000 media buy. And as for the fact that Jane Sanders is the spouse of a politician, she is only required to disclose that she earns “more than $1,000” from her businesses.
What is interesting about the Sanders family foray into media buying, in particular, is that Jane Sanders had no apparent background in media buying. But in her husband’s 2006 campaign, she worked with two media buyers named Barbara Abar Bougie and Shelli Hutton-Hartig – two names that would become significant when Bernie’s political ambitions went national.
Bernie Sanders’s insurgent 2016 presidential campaign brought in a huge sum of money. A large chunk of it — nearly $83 million — flowed to a mysterious limited liability company with no website, no phone number, and no office space. Indeed, the LLC was registered to a private home on a cul-de-sac in suburban Virginia.
The mysterious company is called Old Towne Media LLC. Two names connected to the company are Barbara Abar Bougie and Shelli Hutton-Hartig, Jane’s associates from the 2006 campaign.
The Sanders campaign purchased a whopping $82.77 million in political ads through Old Towne Media, which could have earned the company a media fee of more than $12 million, based on the industry standard for ad-buy commissions. Was Jane Sanders somehow involved in this financial arrangement? FEC disclosures make it easy to hide where media buying fees actually go. Jane listed her income from her professional work at the time as simply “more than $1,000.”
When a highly respected Vermont reporter named Jasper Craven, working for the nonprofit VTDigger.com, asked Jane about Old Towne Media during a phone interview, she replied, “I have no idea what Old Towne Media is.” Then she hung up the phone.
Even when Jane got a job not working for Bernie, it still seemed to be connected to his political position.
In 2004, Jane was appointed head of Burlington College, a private school with fewer than two hundred students. One of the board members of the college admitted that Jane’s marriage to Bernie played a big role in her hiring because they thought that it would help with fundraising.
Attending Burlington College was not cheap; tuition was over $23,000 a year in 2014-15. In addition, the college received millions in federal money over the years and students could apply for federal government–supported student loans. That flow of money provided funds that could be directed into family enterprises. And Jane steered Burlington College resources in the same direction as Bernie did his campaign money: it went to the family.
Beginning in 2009, the nonprofit Burlington College agreed to a deal with the for-profit Vermont Woodworking School to set up a carpentry program. The school, launched two years earlier, was not accredited and happened to be owned by Jane’s daughter, Carina. Burlington College had never had a woodworking program before, and as when Bernie hired Jane to a city job while he was mayor, those outside the family were never invited to apply.
That first year of the alliance, the college gave Carina’s school $56,474 for “materials charges and lease of bench space.” By 2010, the cash flowing from the college to the family business was more than $133,000. Payments ballooned to $182,741 in rental costs alone by 2012. In total, Burlington College would funnel more than $500,000 to Carina’s woodworking school.
The transactions are notable because Burlington College at the time was struggling to pay its own faculty and bills.
Carina’s school also received at least one federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to install biomass heating. At the time, Sen. Bernie Sanders sat on the powerful Senate Budget Committee, with financial oversight of the USDA budget.
Despite the academic failings of the college, its continuing financial difficulties, and the growing river of funds that were flowing to her daughter’s business, Jane’s salary as president continued to rise. By 2009, she was making $160,000, including benefits.
It soon became apparent that the college did not have enough money coming in to pay its debts, and it started falling behind in its loan payments. The board of directors asked Jane to leave in 2011. She received a $200,000 severance on the way out.
Five years later, the college collapsed.
This essay is adapted from the author's book "Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America's Progressive Elite"