There's a new target in the attempt to recover ill-gotten gains from the Tom Petters Ponzi scheme -- politicians.
After recouping phantom profits paid to investors and donations made to nonprofits, bankruptcy trustees and receivers have turned their attention to $500,000 in political contributions made by Petters and his associates. Both of Minnesota's major political parties are targets, since they received contributions before the fraud was exposed in 2008.
The state's Republican Party revealed last year that it owes $75,000 to the Petters receivership. On Friday, state DFL Chairman Ken Martin said the party is in negotiations to return more than $80,000 in contributions from Petters and associates, although the exact amount is up in the air. "We're working to set up a payment plan," he said.
Meanwhile, a bankruptcy trustee in Florida late last year sued U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to return $27,600 in contributions that she received from alleged Petters co-conspirator Frank Vennes Jr. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., returned $80,400 to the Petters estate last August.
"Tom Petters was a bipartisan contributor," said trustee and receiver Doug Kelley in Minneapolis. Kelley is seeking the campaign contributions as the court-appointed receiver for Petters and his associates. He also is bankruptcy trustee for Petters's corporate estate.
Petters is serving a 50-year prison sentence for orchestrating a $3.65 billion fraud that allowed him to become an outwardly rich businessman whose holdings included Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid. He used some of his faux wealth for philanthropic and political giving.
Vennes is charged with fraud and money laundering in the Petters operation but has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in federal court.
Kelley said more requests for the return of campaign contributions will be made in coming months. Much of the money probably will go uncollected from candidates and former officeholders whose campaign committees are broke or out of business, he said.
Kelley and the receivership staff tracked down the campaign contributions through public disclosure records and forensic accounting by PwC. It determined that Petters not only made contributions in his own name but also reimbursed others, including employees and associates, for making contributions on Petters' behalf.
He said the PwC analysis found slightly more than $500,000 in campaign contributions, but more than $150,000 of that went to campaign committees no longer in existence. "We won't get anything from them," he said.
Kelley and the Florida trustee contend that the contributions should be returned on the grounds that they represented a "fraudulent transfer." In the Ponzi scheme, investors were promised healthy returns for the sale of electronic goods that didn't exist and were actually paid off with money from new investors.
"We've kept it low-key because these people had no inkling of what was going on," Kelley said. "We're trying to get through this without having to sue people."
Kelley has received nearly $200,000 from "six to eight" party committees that raised money for candidates.
The Florida trustee, Barry Mukamal, did not respond to a request for comment. He represents the estate of Palm Beach Finance, a hedge fund used by Vennes to funnel investments to the Petters operation. From 2005-08, Vennes made contributions to the Bachmann campaign, a period when he also sought her help in an unsuccessful attempt to get a presidential pardon for a 1987 conviction on money laundering, drug and firearms charges.
William McGinley, legal counsel for Bachmann's congressional campaign, said campaign officials are talking with the Florida trustee regarding the Vennes contributions "and are very confident that this will be amicably settled."
Heather Rubash, state GOP spokeswoman, said its officials are "working through the process" to cope with the party's $2 million debt and "there is no resolution at the moment" on the Petters contribution.
Justin Buoen, campaign manager for Klobuchar for MN, said the campaign had refunded "the full amount" requested by Kelley "for reimbursement of victims of the Petters' fraud."
Petters and his associates were prolific campaign contributors, Federal Election Commission records show. From 2000 to 2008, he made more than $200,000 in political contributions. The added donations by Vennes and former Petters Vice President Deanna Coleman brought the total to more than $316,000.
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, received nearly $30,000 from Petters.
The list of recipients covered the political waterfront. Onetime Democratic presidential contender John Edwards received more than $4,000, rival John Kerry got $2,500. President George W. Bush received $2,000, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., got $2,000 and Minnesota congressional candidate Patty Wetterling got $2,000.
When Petters and his principal associates were arrested and charged in the fall of 2008, several politicians immediately dumped the contributions and funneled them into charities.
Bachmann donated $9,200 to charity. Coleman gave $4,200 to the Boys & Girls Club. Gov. Tim Pawlenty returned $4,000 to Petters. Elwyn Tinklenberg, Bachman's 2008 DFL opponent, gave his $500 contribution from Petters to a fund for apartment fire victims.
Kelley said he doesn't expect all parties to be as accommodating as Klobuchar, who first donated $42,300 to charity, then turned over an additional $80,400 when approached by the trustee.
"But no one has said no yet," said Kelley.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269