Five years later: Tom Petters' Ponzi scheme

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 11:22 PM

5 YEARS AGO,federal agents swarmed business offices of Tom Petters and uncovered a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.

IT BEGAN FIVE YEARS AGO TUESDAY with a surprise raid by federal agents on the Minnetonka campus of Tom Petters’ business enterprise.

What followed was a whirlwind, headline-grabbing investigation and legal crime drama that today is in its final throes.

The events made Petters a household name and taught Minnesotans the intricacies of a well-executed Ponzi scheme. It was a simple and yet sophisticated fraud, in which clueless investors ponied up funds for electronics goods that never existed to sell to retailers who were not buying.

The case could have been written in Hollywood.

It involved whistleblower Deanna Coleman and fast-acting federal prosecutors who wired her to surreptitiously record incriminating conversations. There also was ex-con Larry Reynolds, who came from the witness protection program and, of course, Petters, the charming up-and-coming businessman who schmoozed with some of the best and the brightest in the Twin Cities business community.

Today, the charismatic Petters is five years into a 50-year sentence for his role in the $3.65 billion fraud scheme. But he has at least one more court appearance when he returns to St. Paul next month for a hearing on whether he had the opportunity to consider a purported 30-year plea bargain.

Other colleagues in the decadelong crime are in prison, as well. Coleman has done her time and is free again.

Several players await sentencing for their role in a scheme that once was exceeded only by the $65 billion fraud of New York’s Bernard Madoff.

Meanwhile, efforts to recover and sell personal assets from the fraud — homes, expensive cars, lavish art — to repay victims are winding down. Payouts, once they proceed, are likely to range from 17 cents to 25 cents on the dollar.

A separate bankruptcy proceeding involving the Petters business empire is moving more glacially — in part because of a complicated clawback procedure to retrieve “false profits” from some of the larger investors — and is probably years away from completion.

One distinction remains unchallenged: The Petters case remains the largest financial fraud in Minnesota history. □





















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  • Tom Petters’ Wayzata home was raided on Sept. 24, 2008.

  • The raid: FBI agents carted off items from Tom Petters’ Minnetonka headquarters on Sept. 24, 2008.

  • Tom Petters:The ultimate salesman. Sentenced to 50 yearsin prison.

  • Deanna Coleman: Whistleblower. Spent one year in prison; now free.

  • Michael Catain: Money laundering.Sentenced to 7½ years in prison.

  • Gregory Bell: Chicago hedge fund manager. Sentenced to six years in prison.

  • James Fry: Mound hedge fund manager. Not yet sentenced.

  • Larry Reynolds: Money laundering. Sentenced to 11 years in prison.

  • Frank Vennes Jr.: Fundraiser and middleman. Pleaded guilty; not yet sentenced.

  • James Wehmhoff: Tax accountant. Sentenced to one year home detention.

  • Robert White:Document forger. Sentenced to five years in prison.

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