One of my favorite things to do at Christmastime is to find just the right stocking stuffers for the kids -- wind-up Santas and penguins and lizard-light key chains and candy you can't buy at the gas station. Like in a lot of things these days, though, I can't keep up anymore. It is no fun pretending that Santa has left fruit and Chinese puzzles for everyone when, over at Tom Petters' place last Christmas, the elves all got envelopes stuffed with cash.

Like a $1.25 million bonus for David Baer, one of Petters' vice presidents, another extra million (on top of a salary only about a third that amount) for consultant Robert White and a whopping $1.6 million bonus for Petters' personal Gal Friday, Deanna Coleman. She's the woman (no known relation to me -- man, there are too many Colemans in this world) who eventually got cold feet about her boss' giant pyramid scheme and went all whistle-blower on Petters, turning into a government informant. But before she helped put Petters in jail, where he is awaiting trial on fraud and money-laundering charges, accused of bilking billions, Coleman lived high on the hog.

Much of the Twin Cities water-cooler talk about the Petters scandal has involved this question: How could someone allegedly this corrupt, stealing this much money, get away with it? Why didn't anyone call a halt to it sooner? The answer is beginning to emerge: Money. Big money. Really big money.

Silence really is golden.

So in a time of corruption when Washington balks at saving industries in which millions of real jobs are at stake while giving trillions to save the skins of bankers who were snookered by greed and bunko artists, just keep your mouth shut and you get rich. Especially if Tom Petters was your pal.

According to an FBI document released after the indictment of Petters' accountant, James Wehmhoff (he pleaded guilty to two charges Friday and faces up to seven years in prison), Wehmhoff was one of the lucky kids who had his stocking stuffed by Santa Tom. Last December, Petters gave Wehmhoff a cool extra million. That was only one of eight seven-figure gifts Petters put under the tree.

Just call it hush money.

The FBI toted up almost $13 million in "bonuses" Petters handed out as tax year 2007 came to a close: A million for another consultant, a million for another V.P., two big ones (two million!) for yet another partner, and dozens of bonuses to other employees and associates, most of whom received far less than a million but in many cases received bonuses as large as the annual income of most Minnesota families.

Even Deanna Coleman's boyfriend -- that's how he was listed by the FBI -- got $25,000.

Yes, sir, it was good to know someone who knew someone who knew Tom Petters.

But all of Santa Tom's charity, of course, came from his allegedly ill-gotten gains. If the feds have diagrammed it right, Petters would steal money from X in order to pay Y and help persuade Z to kick in some more money. Everyone would get rich, until the scheme collapsed. And if you were in the inner circle, bags of cash helped quell your doubts.

And seal your lips. While the country slips.

Greed is a powerful elixir. And it is human nature to want to get close to the pixie dust. Two months before Petters was arrested, he was applauded and showered with accolades by an audience at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, which gathered to hear him discuss the "innovative thinking" that had helped "create quality business that now span the globe."

If anyone had listened without being weakened by gold fever, they might have wondered about the rich man's swaggering braggadocio, which almost screamed, "I own two yachts and 21 late-model cars, including 10 Mercedes-Benzes and a Bentley (he did) so don't ask any impertinent questions!"

No one did.

At one point, Petters mesmerized the crowd with a story to explain "who we are and how we do business." He had visited the headquarters of a New York company he was thinking about buying, he said, and he noticed plaques in the lobby and in the men's room, stating the firm's core values.

"I thought, 'I have to plagiarize these,'" Petters said, according to a transcript of his talk. "'I've got to take them.'"

There it is. Core values, plagiarized from a bathroom.

Someday, you can tell your grandkids about a time in America when we were blinded by complete, utter crap.

If there still is an America.

ncoleman@startribune.com • 612-673-4400