Fraud case in Minnesota stirs new legal ripples years later

Published 9:02 pm Wednesday, April 26, 2017

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are considering changing the rules on money that may be recovered for victims of businessman Tom Petters’ $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme.

The change would limit the recovery of investment income earned by charitable or religious organizations that took gifts from Petters or his associates, according to a press release.

The law change would make clear that multiple kinds of donations can be protected after a certain time limit.

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Some charitable foundations confronted by claims from a court-appointed receiver support the change. But the receiver, Minneapolis attorney and former white-collar prosecutor Doug Kelley, said it could take $35 million off the table.

“That would be borne not by the taxpayers, but by the victims of the Ponzi scheme,” Kelley said Tuesday before a House-Senate conference committee hashing over differing public safety and judiciary budget plans.

Petters is serving a 50-year prison sentence after being convicted in a multi-count fraud in 2009. The scheme involving money laundering and fake invoices related to Petters’ electronics retailing spanned 15 years and affected over 250 victims.

Under the law change, any profits earned on a security, such as a stock or bond, wouldn’t be treated differently than cash. Some religious organizations or charitable foundations received something other than cash from Petters or his associates, such as promissory notes that resulted in lucrative returns.

The Northwestern Foundation, which is affiliated with the University of Northwestern, a private Christian college in Roseville, was among them.

“If gifts from a long time ago are reclaimed from foundations, you create a new set of victims, namely all of the folks that have donated money that will now be used to pay the old claim,” said Grover Sayre, a board member of the foundation. “Because often the funds from old donations are long gone.”

Lawmakers said they know they’re dealing with a complicated subject with big ramifications.

Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, warned against dwelling on the facts of the case.

“If the intent here is to exempt charities who have in good faith acted, then that should be our intent,” he said. “If our intent is to address a specific set of fact situations that may or may not extend to other areas, then we should clearly define that. That’s the question I raise: What the policy here should be?”

No action was taken Tuesday to remove or keep the bill’s language.