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When Congressional Spouses (Allegedly) Misbehave

Jane Sanders not the first to get into legal trouble amid a re-election

A federal investigation is looking into a real estate deal and bank loan during the tenure of Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as president of the now-defunct Burlington College. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A federal investigation is looking into a real estate deal and bank loan during the tenure of Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as president of the now-defunct Burlington College. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With congressional job approval hovering around 17 percent, members of Congress are carrying their own baggage into their re-election races, even without the weight of a spouse in legal trouble.

Jane Sanders isn’t a stranger to the spotlight, as her husband, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, ascended the political ladder and nearly claimed last year’s Democratic Party presidential nomination. But now she’s in the news because of a federal investigation into a real estate deal and a corresponding bank loan during her tenure as president of the now-defunct Burlington College in Vermont.

A lawyer who chaired President Donald Trump’s Vermont campaign accused Jane Sanders of bank fraud and alleged that her husband pressured a bank to approve a loan to the college, The Associated Press reported.

Bernie Sanders, who is up for re-election next year, has described the accusations as “pathetic.”

Jane Sanders told The Boston Globe, “I find it incredibly sexist that basically he’s going after my husband by destroying my reputation, and that’s not OK.”

She’s certainly not the first (and won’t be the last) congressional spouse to be in legal trouble while a member seeks re-election or a candidate is involved in a serious race. Bernie Sanders has the advantage of running in Vermont (which gave Hillary Clinton a 28-point victory in the 2016 presidential race) and Inside Elections currently rates the race as Solid Democratic (since the independent senator caucuses with the Democratic Party).

But a safe state or district doesn’t insulate a candidate from political headaches.

A few years ago in Massachusetts, Rep. John F. Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty to “aiding and abetting the filing of false tax returns” in relation to her brothers’ illegal gambling operation about a month before the 2010 elections. The Democratic congressman won that race, and his wife subsequently served a month in prison.

The family legal troubles came up again during the 2012 campaign, when one of Tierneys’ brothers-in-law alleged that the congressman knew about everything that was going on. But Tierney denied the charge directly in a campaign ad and narrowly won re-election with 48 percent of the vote. He was finally toppled in 2014, when he lost to Seth Moulton in the Democratic primary, 51 percent to 40 percent.

In Illinois, Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s husband was indicted in 2004 and served five months in prison two years later for bank fraud in conjunction with his leadership of a nonprofit group. He was released from prison a few days before the 2006 midterm elections, when the Democratic congresswoman was re-elected to a fifth term with 75 percent of the vote in a very Democratic district.

In Michigan, Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s wife hit legal trouble in 2009. The former Detroit city council member was released from prison in 2012 after serving more than two years. Meanwhile, the Democratic congressman has been re-elected four times since his wife’s troubles began, including in a competitive primary in a redrawn district in 2012.

Going further back, Hillary Clinton’s husband was impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998, yet she still got elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 in New York.

In Pennsylvania, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky’s first political comeback was stalled by the legal troubles of her spouse, former Iowa Rep. Edward Mezvinsky. The Democratic congresswoman lost her seat in the Republican wave of 1994. Six years later, she challenged conservative GOP Sen. Rick Santorum in his first re-election bid. But she dropped out of the race in January 2000, days before her husband’s financial and legal troubles started to resurface. He eventually served five years in prison and the couple divorced.

Margolies attempted a second comeback in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 13th District, but finished second in the Democratic primary with 27 percent of the vote, behind now-Rep. Brendan F. Boyle. (Coincidentally, Margolies’ son is married to Chelsea Clinton.)

In each case, none of the elected politicians were indicted or found to be directly involved. In addition, Tierney and Schakowsky had a few terms under their belt (in Conyers’ case, a few decades), and Hillary Clinton had her own profile, before their respective spouses got into trouble, making it easier to weather the storm. That might be the best-case scenario for Bernie Sanders if his wife’s legal problems get worse.

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