Minnesota businessman Tom Petters, accused of running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, will get his day in court June 9, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

And at the same time, attorneys representing Petters announced that they want to revisit the order that has kept Petters in jail for the past three months and seek his release so that he can more effectively help with his defense.

"His life is in the balance here," said defense attorney Paul Engh, noting that Petters could face life in prison if convicted.

Engh, a Minneapolis attorney who this week joined Jon Hopeman on the Petters defense team, asked for a December trial date, citing the complexity of the case and a lack of access to evidence that was seized by the government.

"The temptation here is to rush this along," Engh told U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle. "But we need more time. There hasn't ever been a case like this in Minnesota. The discovery is just massive here."

Petters, 51, of Wayzata, faces 20 felony charges -- including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and money laundering -- related to allegations that he orchestrated a scheme that bilked more than $3.5 billion from investors since the mid-1990s. Until New York trader Bernard Madoff's arrest last month on suspicion of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the case against Petters appeared to be the largest in history.

A straightforward case

Even so, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Marti called the Petters matter a straightforward fraud case, and suggested an April trial date.

"Size is not complexity," Marti said, adding that the government obtained hours of surreptitious tape recordings on which Petters allegedly made "admissions that substantiate this case."

The government has accused Petters of soliciting funds to buy high-end electronics equipment for resale at big-box retailers, then spending the money on other enterprises, to settle earlier debts and to live the high life. Petters has said that he will fight the charges, though several codefendants have pleaded guilty in the alleged scheme.

Engh said the government has 136 boxes of documents seized from Petters' companies and individual participants in the alleged scheme to which the defense has not had access. Engh said there are thousands of transactions between the Petters organization and its investors, which include some hedge funds. "The gist is, the relationship between the Petters companies and the hedge funds is enormously complex," Engh said.

Nonetheless, Kyle set the trial for June.

In a surprise move, Engh said the defense plans to revisit efforts to have Petters released from jail pending trial. Engh said Petters' release would help him prepare for trial.

Petters has been held without bond since his Oct. 3 arrest at his home. He lost two attempts to be released on bond, after judges determined that he was a flight risk. But Engh said the defense has obtained new evidence that was not introduced at previous hearings that could be beneficial to getting Petters released.

Marti, who was caught off-guard by Engh's pronouncement, said that "the nature of the evidence hasn't changed" since Petters was first determined to be a flight risk.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269