They say they invested more than $20 million with the former CEO and his associates.
More than 100 pastors, ministers and nonprofit organizations have joined together in a federal racketeering lawsuit filed Friday in Minneapolis against Tom Petters and some of his associates .
"We've had a whole line of people going through our office the past 10 days," said Carolyn Glass Anderson, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm Zimmerman Reed, which filed the case.
"Their lives really have been devastated," Anderson said. "Several of them are selling their homes and moving into their kids' basements."
Some clients are "pastors who've been making $40,000 a year for 40 years, and they don't have Social Security, and they had all of their life's savings in this," Anderson added. "And one guy was in tears and he said, 'What am I going to tell my wife?'"
The investors say they sank more than $20 million into deals with Petters Co. Inc., a venture capital arm of numerous Petters enterprises that federal authorities have said were used in a massive investment fraud. Anderson said the tally could grow another $40 million if she's successful in getting the lawsuit certified as a class action suit.
Federal authorities raided Petters' home and Minnetonka business headquarters on Sept. 24. Government agents said in court documents that they were seeking evidence of a Ponzi scheme, orchestrated by Petters, which bilked investors out of more than $3 billion since 1995. Petters maintains he is innocent.
Anderson said her nonprofit clients channeled their money through two related Bloomington investment groups called AI Plus Inc., and IOC Distribution Inc. Those groups worked with an agent named Frank Vennes Jr. of Shorewood, who owns and operates a company called Metro Gem Inc., the lawsuit says.
According to federal court records, Vennes said in a Sept. 24 interview with the FBI that he has earned 90 percent of his income since 1995 by working as an investor-agent with Petters and his venture capital business; he estimated that Petters Co. Inc. paid him $38 million last year.
Metro Gem is Vennes' holding company, which solicited investments that purportedly were to be used by Petters to buy and resell large lots of electronics and other merchandise, the lawsuit says. The arrangement was a sham to obtain money for Petters' other enterprises and to support his lavish lifestyle, the suit says.
'Door to dozens of charities'
The lawsuit describes Vennes as "a major philanthropic door to dozens of charities and Christian ministries," and it says Petters used him to gain access to ministers and nonprofit investors.
The defendants named in the suit include Petters, two of his companies, four business associates who have been charged in the alleged scheme, and a couple of business entities. Vennes, who has not been charged, was not named.
"Vennes has professed that he was at all times under the belief that all of the transactions underlying the investments he facilitated at Petters' behest were legitimate and that he sincerely believed the transactions ... were genuine," the suit says. "Vennes maintained his complete innocence of any wrongdoing in connection with defendants' scheme."
Anderson said her clients are giving Vennes the benefit of the doubt.
Zimmerman Reed filed a separate lawsuit this week over the alleged scheme on behalf of Mars Hill Media, a nonprofit publisher of Christian books and tapes. Mars Hill says Vennes "introduced" it to Petters Co. Inc., and that it invested $800,000 with Petters through the Fidelis Foundation. Mars Hill didn't name Vennes as a defendant either.
The government has seized or frozen vast amounts of money, artwork, gems, coins and other property from Vennes, as well as those who have been charged in the case (three of whom pleaded guilty tis week).
Minneapolis attorney Doug Kelley has been appointed receiver for the assets and has control over a number of businesses affected by the seizure, including 13 of Vennes' enterprises. Kelley's attorneys at Lindquist & Vennum have filed notices of the receivership in a number of states where the seized property is located.
Meanwhile, some Twin Cities businesses are working to distance themselves from any association with Petters.
Barbara Jerich, president and chief of staff of the Denny Hecker Automotive Group, sent a memo to employees rebutting rumors that Hecker had lost millions in the alleged scam.
"Sun Country and some of the Denny Hecker businesses have from time to time done cross-promotions, however, neither Denny Hecker personally, nor any of his companies, have any other business or investor relationships with the Petters' Group or its affiliated businesses," the memo says.
TCF Financial Corp. issued this statement Friday: "Neither TCF Financial Corporation, its subsidiaries, nor any senior executive of TCF Financial Corporation have any investment or lending exposure to Petters."
About 50 employees lost their jobs Friday at Petters Group Worldwide companies, including people who work out of the Minnetonka headquarters and a West Palm Beach, Fla., office. The job cuts covered administrative and support staff and those who produce magazines for Great Waters Media. The magazine business is for sale.
Polaroid remains in business, but some lesser-known Petters companies may be sold or closed. A Petters spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Friday.
Staff writer Liz Fedor contributed to this report. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493. Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702