Hunt for cash from Tom Petters' Ponzi scheme goes global

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2014 - 8:25 PM

The bankruptcy trustee wants to file clawback claims against international investors.

Efforts to recover so-called false profits collected during the course of Minnesota’s largest financial crime may be going international.

The trustee in the corporate bankruptcy case of former Wayzata businessman Tom Petters is seeking court approval to extend clawback activities beyond U.S. borders. The goal is to tap the foreign beneficiaries of the $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Petters for more than a decade.

Potential countries on the radar of trustee Doug Kelley range from Australia to Malta. A total of 26 foreign jurisdictions are on his investigative list.

Attorneys for Kelley have asked Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gregory Kishel for an order giving the trustee authority to act in foreign jurisdictions on behalf of the Petters corporate estate. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for later this month.

In an interview Thursday, Kelley said that potentially hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in the recovery effort.

“This is basically follow the money,” Kelley said, noting that foreign investors routinely invested in feeder funds that in turn invested in bigger hedge funds that invested with Petters.

“We’ll get records of the master fund and then records of the feeder funds and then we’ll know where to go,” Kelley said. “We basically reverse the [investment] process.”

The Petters bankruptcy team has already begun retaining lawyers from outside the United States to help identify and pursue potential clawback targets.

In addition, according to the motion before Kishel, attorneys for the Petters estate expect that the list of foreign countries where investors reside “may expand in the future.”

Most of the potential claims are in Caribbean countries often identified with offshore banking, including the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

Kelley said a number of investors — either as individuals or as investment funds — also have been traced to Ireland, Switzerland and Netherlands.

For more than 10 years, until his operation ground to a halt in 2008, Petters and a team of associates engaged in a massive Ponzi schemed that promised high rates of returns to investors who were told they were financing the wholesale purchase and sale of consumer electronics goods to big-box retailers. But no such transactions occurred and funds from new investors were used to pay off old investors.

The fraud finally collapsed after Petters’ top lieutenant, Deanna Coleman, went to federal authorities and exposed the operation.

At one time, Petters’ corporate world included a chain of surplus stores, Sun Country Airlines, Polaroid and the discount catalog company ­Fingerhut.

Bankruptcy proceedings have been underway for more than five years. Through asset sales and clawback settlements, Kelley has retrieved nearly $400 million which, after legal fees are paid, will be returned to creditors and investors who lost money in the scheme.

Petters is serving a 50-year prison sentence in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., although he has filed motions seeking a reduced sentence.

 

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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