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Continued: Charities might do well to keep cash, forget name

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 13, 2008 - 9:57 PM

If you are a history buff, this is a good time to run over to the Walker Art Center and visit the T.J. Petters Family Library. I have a feeling it will vanish soon.

Tom Petters is the tycoon and alleged free-booter who is behind bars, awaiting trial on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and making monkeys out of Minnesotans. Now, as we wait to see how many of his businesses go down the tubes, from Sun Country Airlines to Polaroid, the politicians who accepted his handshakes and his money are running for cover and the charities who were happy to accept his largesse are wondering what to do. Tainted money is sticky money.

In 2006, Petters pledged $1 million to the Walker to support its library collection of books, catalogs, magazines and other holdings, which the Walker says is the largest contemporary art library in the region.

"Tom is an innovative entrepreneur who embraces change," the Walker's former director, Kathy Halbreich, said when the gift was announced. "Those qualities make him naturally interested in modern and contemporary art."

That's the worst thing I've ever heard said about modern art: Tom Petters likes it.

Petters promised to pay the Walker in installments, with the last of the million due in 2011. A Walker spokesperson said that Petters' name will remain on the library, unless he doesn't, um, live up to his promise. Snort.

As I said, "Petters Family Library" is a name that is living on borrowed time.

If the charges are upheld, Petters will be a poster child for the robber barons of our era, the frauds who sucked money out of real things and replaced them with nothing. Take the Polaroid Corp., which Petters bought in 2005.

Polaroid made the instant film that documented a billion birthday parties. But Polaroid, with its larger film formats, also provided photographers and artists, including some who are celebrated at the Walker, such as Chuck Close, with a unique canvas.

The big format film is already gone; manufacture of the smaller film will end soon. Polaroid is an empty shell, its name licensed to foreign-made electronic products that have little to do with the heritage of innovation of one of America's best known companies.

Maybe the Walker can commission a last Polaroid, of Petters in his jail jumpsuit, and hang it in the Petters Library.

They could send copies to universities where Petters bought prestige with his allegedly ill-gotten gains.

His generosity went to the University of Minnesota, the College of St. Benedict, Florida's Rollins College and -- juiciest of all -- Miami University in Ohio. To honor his late son, John, Petters gave $10 million to the school to start a Petters Center for Ethics, Leadership and Professional Skills Development.

A better name would be the Petters Center for Ironically Named Ethics Schools.

Miami and Minnesota plan to keep the money and the Petters name in its places of honor. You may buy ethics centers, but you can't buy ethics.

Amends for funny money should be made, and there is a way: Do the Lutheran Thing.

Twenty years ago, Augsburg College in Minneapolis learned that one of its donors was a closet racist who had sent thousands of anonymous hate letters to mixed-race couples. After much hand-wringing, the college decided to keep the donor's money but took his name off the building he helped pay for. It still seems like the right thing to do for any charitable institution caught in a mess made by an ethically challenged donor.

"It's hard to say what's right," says Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, which works to strengthen philanthropy and encourage responsible giving. "You have to examine your organization's ethics, the direction you want to take, and the principles you operate on."

The Petters foundation ranks in the top 50 in the state, reporting $3.3 million in gifts in its last tax filing. King said that donors and recipients need to follow the law on charitable giving, but that there are obligations higher than the law:

"We encourage donors to step up and go beyond the law to making ethical grant-making decisions," he said. "Donors receive tax benefits for using charitable assets in support of the non-profit side of the community. That's serving the public. It is a matter of the public trust. And with trust comes responsibility.

"You demonstrate that by your actions."

Tom Petters will get his day in court. But more than just waiting to see if he beats the rap -- and if his checks clear the bank -- is required of the charities that cashed them.

If he is convicted, the institutions that took his money will be under obligation to consider the Augsburg solution, by taking out their hammers and chisels, and taking down the Petters name.

ncoleman@startribune.com • 612-673-4400

  • 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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