The Tom Petters fraud case

The Petters case: Where did the Bentleys go?

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2008 - 1:02 PM

Creditors are lining up for the scraps left from Tom Petters' fortune, some of it hidden in the form of fancy cars and condos.

The court-appointed receiver for bankrupt Petters Group Worldwide has been chasing exotic cars, closing luxury homes and collecting expensive lifestyle trappings to save assets for company creditors whose losses are tied to what authorities have described as a $3 billion-plus investment fraud scheme.

In his first report to unsecured creditors, receiver Doug Kelley said Tuesday that a team of accountants, lawyers and former federal investigators is tracking down personal as well as corporate holdings as he tries to find value in the collection of companies that was the brainchild of jailed businessman Tom Petters.

"Asset preservation is at the forefront of our minds," Kelley told a room full of attorneys, most of whom represent investors who lost large sums of money with Petters. "But many of the underlying companies are not operating at a profit so it will be difficult to go forward with them," he added.

Petters, whose holdings include Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid, was arrested in October and charged with mail and wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He remains in jail without bond pending the resolution of the case. Petters has said he will fight the charges, though four of his associates have pleaded guilty in the alleged Ponzi scheme.

Kelley is receiver for the personal holdings of Petters and several of the other defendants. Kelly told the creditors that he is analyzing their personal assets as closely as the corporate ones.

The types of assets Kelley and his helpers are seeking range from the obvious -- cars and vacation condos -- to the eclectic: a collection of photographs by famed black-and-white photographer Ansel Adams, which came with Petters' acquisition of Polaroid Corp. three years ago.

"We've drained swimming pools and lifted boats out of the water to preserve assets for sale. We've been chasing cars -- Bentleys, Ferraris -- in various parts of the country. My job is to look for hints of any places where money might have been hidden," Kelley said.

He said he has obtained financial statements from Petters and several associates named as defendants in the receivership, which is a civil action, and is conducting title searches to uncover their real estate holdings.

"They get one house to live in, not three or four," Kelley said.

Chicago attorney Ronald Peterson, chair of the creditors' committee, told Kelley, "This case is on the right path."

During questioning by attorneys for the creditors, Kelley was asked about a government document calculating a $1 billion net worth for Petters.

"I have not found a bank account with $1 billion," Kelley answered. "The bad news is there is not any one particular place where we found a stash of cash that would make people happy."

Assets with potential net value include Polaroid, which Petters bought in 2005 for $426 million, Sun Country Airlines, which Kelley said needs a temporary cash infusion and is going through separate bankruptcy proceedings, and a handful of small business entities.

Kelley said he sold Petters' magazine publishing business for $275,000 and recovered $9.5 million from a contract with Airbus to sell its aircraft in the U.S. He said Petters Group is also selling its 50 percent share in a money-losing company called Business Impact Group, a marketing and brand design firm in Chanhassen, for $300,000.

Kelley said he discovered $14 million to $16 million that Petters Group has coming from a company called Central American Holdings, which provides consulting services to lotteries in Central America and South America. And he collected a check for $1,060,000 from a brother of Deanna Coleman, a close Petters associate and government informant in the alleged fraud, which she had provided as a loan. "He didn't want any part of this," elley said.

Carolyn Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney representing a group of individual investors who lost $165 million, asked Kelley whether he would attempt to recoup some of Tom Petters' philanthropic contributions, which include sizable commitments to colleges in Ohio, Florida and Minnesota. "We haven't gotten to those decisions yet," Kelley said. "That's on the list to scrutinize."

Kelley said proceeds from the disposal of corporate assets as well as the personal assets under his control will go in the same pot.

"I'm still in the gathering mode," Kelley said.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

  • about this series

  • The Star Tribune's coverage of the federal fraud case against entrepreneur Tom Petters and the struggles of Petters-owned Sun Country Airlines.
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