The leader of a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme cannot win in “last-ditch attempt to escape just punishment for his crimes,” judge says.
The criminal case against Tom Petters ended Thursday with a resounding rebuke of his character, honesty and credibility as his motion for a reduced prison sentence was denied.
In a 22-page order, U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle said the 50-year sentence meted out to Petters for his role in a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme was appropriate and that his highly experienced defense team provided capable counsel during his case.
“Petters’ last-ditch attempt to escape just punishment for his crimes does not hold water; he received constitutionally effective counsel and his sentence was not unlawful,” said Kyle, who presided at the original trial. “He is entitled to neither relief nor sympathy from this court.”
Petters claimed he was not sufficiently informed of a plea-bargain offer before his 2009 trial that would have given him a prison sentence of no more than 30 years in exchange for a guilty plea.
“Staring into an abyss of nearly 15,000 days of incarceration, Petters has tried to pull off one final con,” Kyle said of Petters’ attempt for a lesser sentence.
The judge determined that there was no formal plea offer before Petters; that Petters was well-informed by his attorneys of an informal offer involving a 30-year prison cap, and that there was no evidence that Petters would have accepted the deal “because he repeatedly attempted to avoid ownership of the massive fraud he spearheaded.”
Acting U.S. Attorney John Marti, who helped prosecute Petters and his associates from day one of the criminal investigation, said Kyle’s ruling was a fitting end in the Petters case, although victims of the fraud may still be suffering.
“Facts matter,” Marti said in an interview Thursday. “That’s what Judge Kyle found, that’s what a jury found and that’s what the case was all about. Facts never mattered to Tom Petters.”
Petters’ attorney in the motion for a lesser sentence, Steve Meshbesher, said he discussed the ruling with Petters’ immediate family and that they were “disappointed and saddened by Judge Kyle’s interpretation of the facts.”
“All I could do was present the case in the best light possible to the deciding judge, and I’ve done that,” Meshbesher said. “I will leave it up to the family what to do next.”
Meshbesher said an appeal of Kyle’s decision to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals might be possible, even though Kyle’s ruling stated that he did not believe his decision was appealable.
Chris Madel, the attorney representing the defense team of Jon Hopeman, Paul Engh and Eric Riensche, said: “Mr. Petters’ attempt to impugn the integrity of his exceptional trial counsel was utterly rejected” by Kyle’s ruling.
Petters’ attempt to secure a new sentence was highlighted by a one-day evidentiary hearing on Oct. 23 when Petters took the witness stand in Kyle’s St. Paul courtroom and asked for mercy from the court while he tearfully apologized for participating in a massive fraud that caused financial losses for an untold number of victims.
Kyle was not moved.
“Petters’ testimony was, in the court’s view, deliberate, measured, and calculated. He seemed to be a man putting on a show, willing to say or do anything — including shedding crocodile tears — to obtain a reduction of the lengthy sentence imposed by this court,” Kyle wrote. “He also was fidgety, cagey, and evasive, with his testimony frequently punctuated by lengthy pauses … during which he appeared to be trying to conceive answers most helpful to his cause.”
Guilty on 20 counts
Petters was found guilty on 20 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in 2009 for his role as ringleader in a decadelong Ponzi scheme that centered on the purchase and sale of nonexistent consumer electronic goods that he persuaded investors, including large hedge funds, to help finance.
In reality, returns paid to investors came from funds provided by new investors.
In total, there were convictions or guilty pleas by 13 individuals affiliated with the Ponzi scheme. All have been sentenced and the Petters motion for a reduced sentence was the last outstanding issue in the criminal case, which began in September 2008 when Petters lieutenant Deanna Coleman became a government whistleblower and informant.
Ted Sampsell-Jones, a criminal-law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who has followed the Petters case from the onset, called Thursday’s ruling no surprise.
“This type of motion is hard to win because, in general, you don’t get to go back and ask for a plea bargain after you lose at trial,” Jones said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “Only in cases of some serious injustice will courts grant a motion like this, and Petters was not even close to meeting that standard.”
David Phelps • 612-673-7269