MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A Republican lawyer pushing the allegations that Sen. Bernie Sanders' wife committed bank fraud to win a loan while president of a now-defunct Vermont college has a long history of filing complaints against left-of-center politicians in the state.
The complaints and public records requests filed by Brady Toensing date to 2004, when he sought expense documents from a Vermont auditor of accounts to a 2015 complaint that the state's former Democratic attorney general had committed campaign finance violations.
Then he went after his biggest target to date, alleging during the 2016 campaign that Jane Sanders' committed bank fraud while arranging a $10 million financing deal for Burlington College.
Toensing, 49, lives in the Vermont community of Charlotte, is a partner in the Washington law firm diGenova and Toensing, which was founded by his mother and stepfather, two high-profile former federal prosecutors once called by The Washington Post "a classic Washington power couple."
In an email to The Associated Press, Toensing, who did not point to any of his complaints leading to charges or discipline against his targets, said his efforts are designed "to shine a light on the conduct of public officials."
"An open government is a fundamental principal of our democracy and the sole purpose of the government sunshine law," he said.
All of his efforts have been focused on Democrats or members of the state's Progressive Party. "There aren't many targets on the Republican side here in Vermont," Toensing said of the liberal state.
And Toensing noted that last month, in a case supported by the Vermont Press Association, he asked the Vermont Supreme Court to rule "the public records law reaches public records on employees' private accounts."
Toensing's complaint against Sanders has garnered him far more attention than any of the others. Since word got out last month that Jane Sanders had retained lawyers, the politically independent senator is being asked about it nearly everywhere he goes.
Sanders, who has called his wife "perhaps the most honest person I know," noted that the Burlington College allegations were first made in early 2016 — more than five years after the deal was put together — just as his ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was gaining traction.
"Right in the middle of my presidential campaign, I know this will shock the viewers, the vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party who happened to be Donald Trump's campaign manager raised this issue and initiated this investigation," Sanders said July 2 on CNN's State of the Union. Although he did not name him, Sanders was referring to Toensing.
In a January 2016 letter sent to Vermont's United States Attorney and the acting inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Toensing alleged that in 2010, while Jane Sanders was president of Burlington College, she overstated the value of donations promised to the college as part of a $10 million deal to buy 33-acres (13-hectares) of prime property on the Lake Champlain waterfront along with the former headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. She promised a minimum of $2.27 million in grants and loans but collected only a fraction of that amount.
In 2014, the college sold the property. Never able to recover from the debt, it closed in 2016. The president of the college when it closed, Carol Moore, blamed the real estate deal for the demise of the school.
The office of Vermont's U.S. attorney won't confirm whether the matter is being investigated, but former college officials say they have been questioned by federal agents, and last month the Sanderses acknowledged they had hired lawyers.
Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said Toensing has a history of filing frivolous complaints. He called the complaints against Jane Sanders "a political witch hunt."
"This is another notch in Brady's belt, a waste of time and a politically motivated attack," Casey said
"It makes you wonder if it's not dirty politics, a character smear, which is certainly what he was trying to do to me," said former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, a Democrat who was the subject of a 2015 investigation by an independent counsel appointed by Democratic former Gov. Peter Shumlin after Toensing filed the campaign finance complaints against him.
The investigation into Sorrell by former Republican state Rep. Thomas Little cleared him of five of six allegations, referring the sixth to the state police, which announced in January 2016 that they would not investigate, although they referred the issue to federal authorities. Sorrell's attorney in that case, former Vermont U.S. Attorney David Kirby, who is also one of Jane Sanders' lawyers, said he was later told by federal authorities that no charges would be filed against Sorrell.
"It's unfortunate that he's brought this kind of politics to Vermont," Sorrell said of Toensing.
Sanders' former presidential campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, who has acted as the family spokesman on the Burlington College issue, said Toensing is carrying out a "crusade" against Vermont Democrats and other left-wing politicians.
"Brady Toensing is now throwing mud for national Republicans who want to slander Bernie and Jane Sanders," Weaver said in an email. "Their motivation for these dishonest attacks is pretty transparent. Bernie Sanders' sustained popularity is a threat to the national Republican Party's right-wing agenda."
Former Republican state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, now the Essex County state's attorney, said he didn't know about the Sanders allegations but followed Toensing when he defended a defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate in a campaign finance case.
"He's got good legal skills," Illuzzi said.