A contrite Frank Vennes Jr., one of the principal fundraisers for convicted Wayzata businessman Tom Petters, was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison for his lengthy involvement with the largest financial fraud in Minnesota history.
The sentence was more than Vennes expected and marked the second time in two weeks that an individual who funneled investor funds to Petters received a double-digit prison term.
“It’s definitely more than we hoped for,” said Vennes’ defense attorney, James Volling. “We are disappointed.”
Vennes, 59, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle to the full amount called for in Vennes’ plea agreement with federal prosecutors, despite requests by attorneys for Vennes for a lesser sentence.
Last week, hedge fund manager James Fry, whose clients lost more than $120 million invested with Petters through Vennes, was given a sentence of 17½ years in prison after a jury found him guilty of fraud and making false statements.
In U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Vennes apologized to his family, friends and investors for his involvement with Petters.
“He spoke from the heart,” Volling said.
Vennes pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting securities fraud and unlawful monetary activity in February.
For more than a decade, according to the charges, Vennes acted as a financial conduit between Petters and hedge funds in the Twin Cities and Florida and collected commissions exceeding $100 million for his efforts in raising money for Petters.
There never was any direct evidence that Vennes knew that the Petters operation was a fraud but government prosecutors said he was complicit in allowing investors to be misled about the nature of their investments.
“He was Tom Petters’ largest, longest and loyalist financier, responsible for bringing in more than a billion dollars of other people’s money into PCI [Petters Company Inc.],” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a sentencing brief.
Petters and a handful of associates ran a scheme that enticed investor money on the premise that those funds were being used to purchase consumer electronic goods on a wholesale level for sale to big-box retailers at a profit. However no such transactions took place and funds from later investors were used to pay off earlier investors.
Volling argued that a “far more lenient” sentence would be more appropriate for Vennes given his years of charitable acts and contributions “with addicts, the homeless and the most downtrodden in society.”
“Frank Elroy Vennes Jr. is a complicated person that the government unfairly simplifies into a black-hat-wearing cartoon villain,” Volling said in his sentencing brief.
But investment victims who contacted federal prosecutors called Vennes “a narcissistic sociopath” who denied responsibility for his actions.
According to prosecutors, Vennes used Fry and the Florida hedge funds to raise money for Petters when Vennes could not find financial resources of his own because of his status as an ex-convict. That fact also was hidden from investors in the hedge funds. Vennes also knew that the hedge fund managers were misleading investors about the source of payment on the returns from their investments. Instead of coming from big-box retailers as promised, the payments came from bank accounts controlled by Petters. Investors were also not told when scheduled payments on the investments were delinquent and approaching default.
The sentencing of Vennes nearly brings to a close the criminal prosecutions arising out of the $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.
Two Florida-based hedge fund managers who also invested with Petters through Vennes are scheduled to be sentenced next week and a former executive with Fry who also provided false testimony is to be sentenced in November.