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Continued: Petters' attorney turns prosecution witness in swindle case

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 16, 2008 - 9:46 PM

Imprisoned businessman Tom Petters' federal defense attorney became a key witness for the prosecution Tuesday in a small, but surreal sideshow to his client's troubles.

Jon Hopeman testified in the Hennepin County District Court trial of Derrick Riddle, who is accused of trying to swindle $250,000 from Petters to help him beat the case. In an FBI surveillance video played in court, Riddle said he was working on behalf of a powerful, moneyed organization called "Motivated By Greed" or "MBG."

The buttoned-down Hopeman was the first witness called in the case against Riddle, who dismissed his own acclaimed public defense attorney Ann Remington so he could act as his own lawyer. In court Tuesday, Riddle was at ease and was quick with responses, telling District Judge Mark Wernick he could speak for himself as well as a lawyer. "I don't need no degree to point out evidence," Riddle said.

Hopeman, a former assistant U.S. attorney, testified in a crisp and direct manner that he was fearful of Riddle at the Oct. 20 meeting. "He was all business. He was very cold. He looked at me like I was a piece of meat. He never smiled, not even at the introduction," Hopeman said.

Hopeman said after Riddle called him, he immediately notified Assistant U.S. Attorney John Marti, who sent FBI special agent David Kukura to Hopeman's downtown office. Together, Kukura and Hopeman arranged a visit from Riddle and set up video and audio surveillance in a conference room.

In a voice-mail message played in court, Riddle told Hopeman he had "some people" who wanted to help Petters "beat this case, put a judge in his pocket." He mentions $250,000 and says, "call me if you would like this deal, no strings attached."

The voice mail led to the FBI-recorded meeting at Hopeman's office in which Riddle pushed for a face-to-face meeting of "MBG" people with Petters. But Hopeman said that would be hard given the "very secure conditions" under which Petters is held.

Petters, a one-time philanthropist and high-flying businessman, has been jailed without bail since early October. He was indicted earlier this month on 20 counts of wire and mail fraud, conspiracy and money laundering for an alleged investment scheme that ran from 1995 through September.

Riddle said on video, Petters "can make all this go away or he can take his chances. ... These people can make more money off of him out than in."

Riddle wrote a note to Hopeman telling him to drop off $250,000 cash at a north Minneapolis house and then a judge would "give you a call." Prosecutors say Riddle lived at the house.

In his cross-examination of Hopeman, Riddle asked, "Did Mr. Riddle say that he cared one way or another ... whether you delivered?"

Hopeman said no.

Riddle asked whether Hopeman had ever lied, and Hopeman said yes.

Riddle said, "Do you have any evidence you're not lying today?'

Hopeman said, "I believe there's a videotape, sir."

The trial is expected to wrap up this week.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

  • 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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