After 13 years hunting hidden treasure, a federal judge on Friday ended the court-appointed receivership for notorious Wayzata businessman Tom Petters, after ruling that his Ponzi scheme victims and creditors were finally able to receive $722 million.
In discharging Douglas A. Kelley from his receiver duties, U.S. District Judge Ann D. Montgomery noted that Petters ran one of the nation's largest and "most complex" Ponzi schemes in U.S. history.
The discredited Wayzata businessman is serving a 50-year prison sentence for defrauding investors out of $1.9 billion in cash (and up to $3.5 billion in contracted obligations). Kelley and his team have spent more than a decade searching for and liquidating Petters' assets to compensate as many victims and creditors as possible.
"The primary objective of the receivership was to preserve assets for victims and creditors," Montgomery said. "After more than 120 public court hearings and nearly 3,300 [case] docket entries, the work of the receiver has concluded."
Kelley has more work to do on the Petters case, however, including handling several bankruptcy cases.
In October 2008, the U. S. Justice Department froze Petters' assets, cronies' assets and those belonging to the 150 business entities Petters created to hide his scheme. Several of Petters' peers were convicted and also sentenced to prison for the fraudulent ruse.
The vast business networks Petters created were so complex it took years to untangle. But eventually the assets — houses, other real estate, bank accounts, investment accounts, vehicles and other property — were found, seized, auctioned or disbursed to compensate duped investors and other creditors.
"It was certainly an exercise," said Spencer Fane attorney Jim Lodoen, who was hired by Kelley to help handle the Petters case.
"There were around 150 Petters entities and [because of the fraud], you didn't know what was where. What was real? What wasn't real? And of course all the executives of the Petters company — where the fraud was occurring — they all resigned."
Once assets were found, many who profited from the scheme fought in court to hold onto their money.
"There were probably a dozen or so cases that went up to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," Lodoen said. "So there is hardly a federal judge in Minnesota or at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that didn't touch some part of this case."
In his role as court-appointed receiver, Kelley placed several of Petters' largest business entities in bankruptcy, including Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid Corporation.
Kelley also managed real estate, categorized assets, liquidated property, paid employees, and filed several "claw-back" lawsuits against hedge funds that profited from Petters' crimes. Kelley negotiated settlement agreements, and worked through the bankruptcy and government forfeiture process to untangle the fraud.
Kelley is finnished as the receiver on the case but will continue his work as the bankruptcy trustee on the Petters estate.
Four Petters-related bankruptcy cases remain, including Kelley's lawsuit against BMO Harris Bank for allegedly destroying documents needed to recover Petters' funds. A hearing is set for January in that case.
Other retrievals have been put to bed. It took more than a year for Kelley to sell Petters' seven-bedroom, 9,300-square-foot-home on Lake Minnetonka in 2010. It finally sold for $5 million after 400 days on the market.
In 2018, a federal jury awarded 30 Petters creditors $3.5 million in "claw-back" money. The creditors subsequently turned over the awarded funds to 100 entities, including teachers pension funds, investment firms and other beneficiaries who lost money as a result of Petters' Ponzi scheme.
Kelley and his team launched more than 150 lawsuits or bankruptcy adversary proceedings to recover profits and employee bonuses received by Petters' earliest investors and fellow company executives. He said he plans to buy champagne and celebrate with people around the country who helped retrieve funds.
The Minnetonka-based Petters Co. Inc. that Petters ran for nearly 14 years filed for bankruptcy in late 2008.
On Dec. 1, 2008, Petters was indicted on mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy for orchestrating the $1.9 billion Ponzi scheme. He was convicted one year later on all 20 counts of fraud committed using a business that involved getting others to invest in the wholesale purchase and retail sale of electronic consumer goods that didn't exist.
Petters was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison in April 2010. He is serving his time at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
Six of seven co-defendants pleaded guilty to the Petters' fraud and were also sentenced by the courts.