Businesses got most of their missing money back but still want to see punishment.
Minnesota farmer Dean Tofteland is not celebrating the lawsuit the government filed this week against former MF Global Chief Executive Jon Corzine.
Tofteland is still out roughly $20,000 of the $253,000 MF Global allegedly illegally transferred from funds he had on deposit with the company to cover commodity hedges. But Tofteland welcomed news that federal regulators will try to hold Corzine at least partly accountable for what they call MF Global’s misappropriation of nearly $1 billion, money supposedly used to shore up bad investments in risky European bonds.
“To stop this in the future,” said Tofteland, “there has to be a deterrent.”
MF Global’s disastrous Eurobond play led to the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history in October 2011. It sparked Senate and House hearings, including one at which Tofteland testified. The improper withdrawal of supposedly segregated funds deposited in thousands of accounts turned into a national scandal that swept in hundreds of Minnesota farmers and agricultural businesses.
Most of the farmers involved didn’t choose to do business with MF Global. They invested through brokers or financial advisers known as futures commissions merchants, who eventually used MF Global to clear trades.
The company’s misuse of their funds will likely cost Corzine, a former U.S. senator, New Jersey governor and Goldman Sachs investment bank executive, his professional reputation, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit brought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Under oath, Corzine denied involvement in the risky scheme that brought his company down. But based on internal MF Global e-mails and recorded calls, the CFTC alleged that Corzine played a bigger role than he admitted in his sworn testimony. The agency also accused another former executive, Edith O’Brien, with misusing customer funds.
Through their lawyers, Corzine and O’Brien have called the charges against them meritless.
While most agriculture businesses, including hundreds in Minnesota, have recouped about 90 percent of their missing money, farmers, commodity brokers and grain elevator operators statewide say losing any money to MF Global’s shenanigans was unacceptable.
In addition to his missing $253,000, Tofteland, who raises wheat, corn and pigs in Luverne, lost another $100,000 when he was forced to liquidate hedges held at MF Global.
The recovery process has been long for everyone affected.
“Obviously, we would prefer that the money was never misappropriated,” said Todd Ludwig, CEO of WFS, which operates grain elevators all over southern Minnesota.
WFS serves 4,000 customers and had $565 million in sales in fiscal year 2011. The co-op handles 65 million bushels of produce a year and takes options or futures positions on virtually all of those bushels. Originally, it was missing $15 million in funds held by MF Global. It collected $12 million over the past 19 months and sold the remaining $3 million at a discount to a firm that assumed the risk of collecting the money.
“We lost money and we lost sleep,” Ludwig said.
Minnesota had a half-dozen grain elevator companies with over $1 million missing from MF Global accounts, said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association. They now have 90 percent of their money back, but several are still out more than $100,000.
“This has certainly had an impact on the whole industry,” Zelenka said, “not just MF Global.”
The country had 154 futures commission merchants before MF Global collapsed, according to Keith Sorensen of Nisswa-based Sorensen Yaggie Commodity Consultants. Now 54 of them have closed.
“There won’t be restitution to some businesses,” Sorensen said. “It’s a sour thing.”
The situation will grow more sour if MF Global does not make every farmer and business missing funds whole before it pays the government a $100 million fine prescribed in the lawsuit, those affected said.
Sorensen and Tofteland both wonder if Corzine will ever be charged with a crime, given his political connections.
Corzine’s congressional testimony doesn’t square with what investigators say he did, Tofteland pointed out. “The rule of law has got to be the rule of law.”
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123