Tom Petters' new mission: 'To get the truth told'

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2012 - 9:07 AM

The imprisoned Ponzi schemer gave a rare interview to Twin Cities Business magazine.

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Tom Petters in 2008, when he was being held in the Sherburne County Jail.

Photo: ., Sherburne Co. Jail

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His khaki-colored shirt says "Petters T." Inmate number 14170-041 runs below the name.

Along with matching pants, this is the daily uniform for Tom Petters as he serves out a 50-year prison sentence for his role in the largest financial fraud in Minnesota history.

According to Twin Cities Business magazine, which obtained an exclusive interview with the former Wayzata businessman, Petters appears well-adjusted to prison life at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

"He looks tan, well-groomed, physically fit and, overall, healthy," writes magazine editor Dale Kurschner, whose eight hours of interviews with Petters is the basis of a 14-page spread in the Twin Cities Business May issue, out Wednesday. "He's calm, positive, exhibits a good sense of humor and is passionate about his former business activities and goals."

The interview with the magazine is the first Petters has given to a Minnesota publication or broadcast outlet since he was arrested in October 2008 for running a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.

In the interview, Petters vigorously denies his role in the scheme, asserting that his associates actually ran the fraudulent operation that promised high interest rates but borrowed from new investors in order to make those payments to earlier investors, all under the guise of buying and selling consumer electronic goods to big box retailers. He also contends he was so deeply involved in other financial transactions involving the likes of Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid that he was unaware of what the others were doing.

Petters, 54, makes basically the same defense in the article that he did unsuccessfully during his trial in 2009, which concluded with 20 guilty counts for fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. An appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was rejected late last year.

"We stand behind our prosecution of Tom Petters," said Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office for Minnesota, whose attorneys handled the Petters trial. "We find his behavior reprehensible and feel his sentenced was justified."

Two-person cell

For Petters, prison life in a two-person cell is a far cry from his life-in-the-fast-lane existence as a seemingly successful Minnesota entrepreneur and philanthropist. The remnants of his corporate estate are now in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee.

Petters is awakened each day at 6 a.m. by the clanging of the cell door locks in Leavenworth's Block C. At 5 p.m. each day there is a mandatory lockdown to make sure all prisoners are accounted for in the medium-security facility, according to Kurschner.

During the day, Petters teaches other inmates how to make business plans. He spends evenings in the prison library doing research for his possible appeals. His attorneys last week filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review of the case and the sentence.

Asked about his daily routine, Petters said:

"I look forward to talking with family and friends. I look for the best I can find in any situation.

"I'm in a unit where I'm safe. There have been no altercations or arguments with inmates. I go to work each weekday in the education area. ... I also read a lot, and I'm working hard on legal research. ... I believe the truth will eventually set me free, so I work on strategy to get the truth told."

Petters said his biggest disappointment of the past four years was the perceived betrayal by his chief lieutenant and onetime lover Deanna Coleman, whose whistleblowing to federal authorities led to the collapse of the Petters empire.

"I'd just ask, why?" Petters replied when asked what he would say to Coleman if he bumped into her on the street. "I honestly don't know how Deanna and some of the other people can look themselves in the mirror. I've never been so disappointed in my life."

Attempts to reach Coleman were unsuccessful. After completing her 11-month prison sentence, she moved to northern Minnesota. Coleman's attorney, Allan Caplan, said, "The likelihood of Mr. Petters bumping into anyone on the street is nil."

Despite his current circumstances and the probability that he won't leave prison alive, Petters sounds reflectively upbeat.

"I was grateful for the good life I had. I had the opportunity to meet five U.S. presidents, I have an incredible amount of gratitude for the people who helped me," Petters said. "Not a day went by in which I ever knowingly defrauded anyone."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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