Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Frank Vennes Moves to Vacate his Guilty Verdict and Conviction

Frank Vennes filed  documents Pro Se last month to vacate his guilty verdict and conviction last month. Vennes was sentenced October 16, 2013 to 180 months plus three years supervised release for two counts of money laundering and aiding and abetting securities fraud.

Vennes was not happy about how his Faegre Baker Daniels attorney James Volling handled his case, particularly the plea agreement.

 The U.S. Attorney's office filed a response November 4, 2014 in disagreement with Mr. Vennes's complaint. Volling filed an affidavit November 7, 2014 in response in disagreement with Mr. Vennes's complaint.

In an October 15, 2014 order, Judge Kyle said the following, "Furthermore, by challenging Volling’s effectiveness and calling into question the communications between him and Defendant, the attorney-client privilege has been waived."

It will be interesting if Mr. Vennes gets a hearing.

Read more at Law 360.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Frank Vennes in Prison

Screenshot from BOP inmate locator.

UPDATE: The Best Places to Go to Prison (CNBC)

FCI Butner is part of the latest trend — a federal correctional complex that includes several prisons with varying security levels. The campus in Butner, N.C., also includes a medical center.

While it’s the low-security facility that Ellis prefers, he said the entire campus is viewed as the “crown jewel of the Bureau of Prisons.” One criminal who scored a cell is Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, who calls FCI Butner Medium home. Madoff “hit the inmate lottery,” Ellis said.

The prison complex is close to the Research Triangle area of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill — that means good quality interns are available to work for free at the facilities.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Red Flags

David Phelps at the Strib reports U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kishel has ruled to allow a consolidation of clawbacks of hedge funds in one proceeding and the judge says there were several "red flags" the investors should have noticed that indicated Tom Petters was a fraudster.

One big red flag not mentioned is Tom Petters' associate Frank Vennes. A lot of these high-rolling investors, not to mention several elected officials apparently knew Mr. Vennes served time for a conviction for money laundering and invested anyways.

I took a look at the judge's ruling and could find only one mention of Frank Vennes - a footnote in one of the 107 pages. This is it:
James Fry of Arrowhead was indicted on various criminal charges, on the assertion that he worked with Frank Vennes of Metro Gem to fraudulently lure investors into the Petters scheme.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Last Petters/Vennes Sentencings: Prevost, Harrold & Palm

It was a long day - three hearings.  Here's what Judge Kyle decided:

Bruce Prevost - 90 months.

David Harrold - 60 months.

Michelle Webster Palm  - 3 years probation.

One bit of drama I captured on paper - former Major League baseball player Albie Pearson testified on behalf of Bruce Prevost and gave Mr. Prevost a big hug afterwards.

Click on the sketches to make them bigger:

Albie Pearson Hugs Bruce Prevost.

David Harrold.

Bruce Prevost.

Michelle Webster Palm.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mariah Blake's Sloppy Reporting for Mother Jones Lets Michele Bachmann Off the Hook

Last week I wrote about Mariah Blake's lack of attribution in her Mother Jones article about Michele Bachmann's clawback of Vennes contributions - something the The Star Tribune & the AP published October 13,2013 and I reported back in June.

Like her godawful TNR article there's a bunch of sloppy statements in Blake's MoJo article:

1)"...Frank Vennes, a former North Dakota pawnshop owner who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for aiding and abetting fraud."

Frank Vennes pled guilty to two counts; aiding and abetting securities fraud and money laundering. Here is the plea agreement. According to the DOJ announcement of the second superseding indictment, had Vennes gone to trial he would have faced eight counts of securities fraud, two counts of mail fraud, six counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, three counts of bank fraud, and two counts of making false statements on credit applications. Vennes was originally charged in an April 20, 2011 indictment with four counts of securities fraud and one count of money laundering.

2) "But she didn't return Vennes's donations—until now."

Well, not exactly. Bachmann attempted to dump some of the Vennes campaign donations early on - Karl Bremer wrote about that bizarre part of the pardon & campaign cash saga in his award-winning investigative series "Lawyers, Guns & Money: An Inside Look at the Political Pardon of Frank Vennes Jr." on the Ripple in Stillwater blog:

On Oct. 3, Ronald Rodgers in the OPA sent an email to Kenneth K. Lee, associate legal counsel for the White House who handled pardon applications.

“Ken, this is a pardon case that you asked us to take a second look at and we sent it through the wickets anew and then over to you on or about 1 July 2008 (redacted) no action by the President has been taken on the case.

“We just got a call from Congresswoman Michele Bachman’s (sic) office: they wanted to withdraw their letter of support that they submitted on behalf of the guy, though they didn’t specifically disclose the reason for it. It appears he is under investigation for a securities and/or wire fraud matter and they executed a search warrant last week in which he was implicated.”

Rodgers sent Lee a link to a September 26 Star-Tribune report on the Petters raid that named Vennes.

On Oct. 3, 2008, the OPA also sent a two-page fax, the contents of which are unknown, to Bachmann with the subject line “per your request.” However, the fax wasn’t sent to the congresswoman’s office, from which her pardon letters had been sent. It was sent to Bachmann’s campaign office in Minnesota.

That same day, displaying further signs of panic just weeks before the election, Bachmann tried to symbolically wash her hands of the Vennes’ most recent campaign contributions by donating the sum of $9,200—an amount equal to Frank and Kimberly Vennes’ June 30 donations to Bachmann, but only a small portion of Bachmann’s total take from the Vennes and Howse families—to Minnesota Teen Challenge, an organization closely linked with Vennes. That didn’t work out so well for the congresswoman either. Minnesota Teen Challenge returned the donation to Bachmann two weeks later.

“We didn’t want to be involved if it was dirty money,” said Rich Scherber, executive director of Minnesota Teen Challenge, which lost millions in the Petters Ponzi scheme after investing with Vennes. Scherber personally suffered a loss of $423,759 in the Petters Ponzi through investments with Vennes, according to court documents, some of which he may recover from Vennes’ seized assets.
(Bachmann ultimately donated the $9,200 to R3, a collaborative of Christian recovery groups that includes Minnesota Teen Challenge, but has kept the remaining $41,000 she got from the Vennes-Howse connection.)

3)  "According to subsequent FBI wiretap recordings, Vennes knew he might face criminal charges..."

Tom Petters was recorded by a wire worn by his associate turned government witness Deanna Coleman (not a phone wiretap) talking about Vennes - not Vennes himself saying he knew he would face criminal charges. I am not aware of a phone wiretap of Frank Vennes talking about facing criminal charges. There's no way I can check Blake's source since her link is to the DOJ's collection of wire recordings and transcripts and not a specific recording or transcript.

4) "After being elected to Congress, Bachmann began lobbying for Vennes's pardon, an unusual step given that he lived outside her district:"

Blake does not explain why it is "unusual"for a congress member to help a non-constituent - there's a general ethics rule in Congress about devoting official resources to helping a non-constituent. This is from the House Ethics Committee manual from that time:
Assisting Non-Constituents

On occasion a Member’s publicized involvement in legislation or an issue of national concern will generate correspondence from individuals outside the district. A private citizen may communicate with any Member he or she desires. However, the Member’s ability to provide assistance to such individuals is limited.

The statute that establishes the Members’ Representational Allowance provides that the purpose of the allowance is “to support the conduct of the official and representational duties of a Member of the House of Representatives with respect to the district from which the Member is elected.”29 This statute does not prohibit a Member from ever responding to a non-constituent. In some instances, working for non-constituents on matters that are similar to those facing constituents may enable the Member better to serve his or her district. Other times, the Member may serve on a House committee that has the expertise and ability to provide the requested help. Of course, if a Member has personal knowledge regarding a matter or an individual, he or she may always communicate that knowledge to agency officials. As a general matter, however, a Member should not devote official resources to casework for individuals who live outside the district. When a Member is unable to assist such a person, the Member may refer the person to his or her own Representative or Senator.
Bachmann should have been investigated for writing a highly improper letter to the Pardon Attorney on official stationery lobbying for a presidential pardon for non-constituent, big-time donor Frank Vennes. Specifically, she should have been asked whether there was there a quid pro quo.

5) "At the time, the Petters fraud, which brought in more than $36 billion over the course of a decade, was the largest known Ponzi scheme in US history."

Blake also used this figure in her TNR  article describing the Petters Ponzi scheme as a "$36 Billion Ponzi swindle". $36 billion is the amount that may have passed through the Petters scheme, but the total amount is usually described as $3.7 billion by the DOJ.
6) "There's no indication Bachmann knew about Vennes's ongoing criminal activity"

As a tax attorney, you would expect Michele Bachmann would know that selling promissory notes are securities and selling securities without a license is a crime. Also, according to the SEC promissory notes are a notorious red flag for fraud. As a felon, Vennes could not have and did not have a license. Bachmann cannot say she did not know much about Vennes' business because she says in her letter to the Pardon Attorney; "I am confident of Mr. Vennes' successful rehabilitation" and " I know from personal experience, Mr. Vennes has used his business position…" -

Those statements on her letter to the Pardon Attorney are bold assertions that implied Bachmann had thoroughly investigated Vennes' business Metro Gem, a fraudulent enterprise that acted as a feeder fund for the Petters Ponzi scheme. After the 2008 raid, Bachmann made a careful statement that in no way addressed the fact that she had personally vouched for Vennes' honesty. As a congress member, Rep. Bachmann had access to government resources to look into Mr.Vennes' business. Lying to a Federal law enforcement agent is a felony and Bachmann's letter was addressed to the Pardon Attorney who is an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Martha Stewart went to prison for that crime. Reporters need to ask Michele Bachmann whether she lied to the Pardon Attorney when she claimed she was confident that Mr. Vennes was rehabilitated.

Also, if Blake had attended recent court hearings as I have, she would know that attorneys discussed in open court how Bachmann lobbied the White House for a pardon for Frank Vennes and that the Bachmann letter was used by Vennes to assuage nervous clients.

But, perhaps the worst aspect for me of Mariah Blake's sloppy reporting is her implied assertion - "as I have reported" - that she and only she has reported the story of Frank Vennes and Michele Bachmann.

In a November 2, 2011 article in Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy credits Karl Bremer with the initial Bachmann/Vennes investigative legwork:
Following up on reporting by Karl Bremer at Ripple in Stillwater, Blake explains how Frank Vennes and his partner, convicted Ponzi schemer Tom Petters, made millions on phony investments and then poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns in the 2000s. Vennes' donations seemed to have a clear motive: receiving a presidential pardon for a prior felony conviction.

Many reporters and bloggers have written about this story over five years beginning with the Star Tribune's Jon Tevlin. Much of the mainstream reporting on the Vennes case has had a business focus concentrating on the fraud rather than Vennes' political pals who helped facilitate the fraud. Without a doubt, Karl Bremer who died last January did the essential investigative reporting on the political aspects on the Vennes case. Karl wrote about the politics of the Vennes case for the Minnesota Independent, the Dump Bachmann blog and a book we co-authored with Eva Young published by Wiley and Sons in 2011. I like to think that I am continuing Karl's work on this blog.

Local reporters and bloggers often provide information that national reporters amplify to a larger readership. Smart national reporters know that the origin of the scoop is often as interesting as the scoop itself as was the story of how Bluestem Prairie's Sally Jo Sorensen discovered Tom Emmer's bizarre testimonial commercial while watching a local wrestling TV show.

Another more important reason for mainstream reporters to link back to the original authors is to give readers a source to read up more about the subject. In her February 2, 2013 article "Frank Vennes and the Petters Ponzi scheme: a long, mysterious tale" Minnpost reporter Beth Hawkins let her readers know that the Vennes Info blog was a source for ongoing information on the case.

Crediting local reporters and bloggers does nothing to diminish the reputation of national reporters. Here's a quote from a June 28, 2011 broadcast of Democracy Now! from reporter Michelle Goldberg:

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously—you know, the local bloggers in Minnesota have been doing amazing work on this for years now. And it’s amazing to me—I mean, I’ve written about it a little bit in The Daily Beast. It’s amazing to me that this issue hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream media, in part because it’s not just about Michele Bachmann, it’s also about Tim Pawlenty. And one of the interesting things about Frank Vennes is that, you know, the reason that he was able to kind of insinuate himself into Republican Party politics both—was both financial and ideological, right? He claimed to have found Jesus when he was imprisoned for cocaine—for money laundering and cocaine trafficking. And then he came out, having found Jesus, and made himself a kind of stalwart of Minnesota’s evangelical community. He, you know, kind of cultivated all of these powerful allies. And it was because of these powerful allies that he was able to accomplish his fraud.

Here's the video of that broadcast featuring Michelle Goldberg and Karl Bremer:

H/T and thanks to Phoenix Woman.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Clawbacked Fidelis Foundation Has Apparently Moved From Plymouth to Shoreview

According to Charitystat.com the Fidelis Foundation has apparently moved from Plymouth in Hennepin County to Shorview in Ramsey County.  Charitystat.com also has an awesome chart showing the precipitous decline in revenue at Fidelis following the raid on Tom Petters & Frank Vennes' businesses and homes in 2008.

I looked  up Fidelis on the Minnesota Secretary of State website (the MN Attorney General's website still has the Plymouth address). Here's a screenshot from the SoS site:

People sometimes ask me "whatever happened to Vennes attorney & lobbyist Craig Howse? Howse who used to describe his publicity-shy client this way: “The folks that are behind this don’t like drawing a lot of attention to themselves". Of course, we now know why Frank Vennes wanted to hide in the shadows.

Much of Frank's phony generosity (which his defence attorney Jim Volling touted at the Vennes sentence hearing) flowed through the Fidelis Foundation which has the double-dubious distinction of being mentioned in the superseding indictment of Tom Petters and the letter supporting a pardon for Frank Vennes penned by failed presidential candidate Michele Bachmann who was the recipient of boatloads of campaign contributions from Vennes, his family and associates including Craig Howse. Howse's law firm also received a mention in his client's indictment. The office for Fidelis used to be right next door to Howse's firm in Plymouth.

Michele Bachmann lauded the Fidelis Foundation in her pardon request for Frank Vennes Jr.:
Bachmann wrote:

“As a U.S. Representative, I am confident of Mr. Vennes’ successful rehabilitation and that a pardon will be good for the neediest of society. Mr. Vennes is seeking a pardon so that he may be further used to help others. As I know from personal experience, Mr. Vennes has used his business position and success to fund hundreds of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping the neediest in our society. The Fidelis Foundation, backed by Mr. Vennes, has directed over $10.7 million in total gifts in the last three years, and the Fidelis Foundation has ranked #6, #9 and #7 as the largest grant-making foundation in Minnesota over the past three years.”

The Fidelis Foundation is a Plymouth, Minn.-based nonprofit organization “organized to assist Christians in discerning, clarifying and implementing God’s call and direction in their life,” according to the group’s tax filings. Its chairman is G. Craig Howse, Vennes’ lawyer, and the organization leases office space from Howse for $1,300 a month.

Howse has donated $5,000 to Bachmann’s campaign committee since 2007.

A list of wire communications are presented as evidence in the Petters Ponzi case (see superseding indictment of Tom Petters (PDF)). Among them this mention of a wire transfer of $4,060,000 from the Fidelis Foundation to "PCI's account". PCI is Petters Company Incorporated.

The latest #990 for 2012  still lists Vennes lawyer & lobbyist Craig Howse as chairman.

Here's some old Vennes Info posts about Mr. Howse:

Palm Beach Finance Trustee Settlement With Vennes Attorney Craig Howse

Vennes Lawyer/Lobbyist Craig Howse Continues to Trouble the Waters of Deer Lake

Vennes Lobbyist in 2007: “The folks that are behind this don’t like drawing a lot of attention to themselves"

The late Karl Bremer's Ripple in Stillwater blog has a great deal about the Fidelis Foundation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

National Media Continues to "Report" Local News Stories Without Attribution

Mariah Blake  now working for Mother Jones "reports" on the Bachmann clawback today, something the Strib reported a little over a week ago and I reported back in June.

Here's a repeat of a Dump Bachmann post from Halloween, 2011:


Steve Buttry a 40-year veteran in the news biz has this to say on his blog about plagiarism:
Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. Given the scandals in journalism over the past decade, the typical excuse blaming plagiarism on sloppiness simply doesn’t wash. Plagiarism can ruin a career.
You'd think jet-setting, East Coast reporters would have learned a lesson about plundering homegrown media in flyover country for content after Matt Taibbi got caught ripping off G.R. Anderson's City Pages profiles of Michele Bachmann.

Now, The New Republic's Mariah Blake thinks she can Google-up a whole bunch of articles by local reporters and cobble together a flawed, confusing, unfocused article. No wonder Scott Lemieux conflates Petters and Vennes at the Lawyers Guns & Money blog:

Mariah Blake’s article about Tom Petters is fascinating stuff. Petters used a Ponzi scheme funded largely by hedge funds, investors known to Petters and his associates through Christian groups, and the purchase of failing legitimate businesses to finance the classic lifestyle of the conservative wealthy-and-tasteless (high stakes slot machines! Yacht cruises with prostitutes, interns selected as potential sex partners, and cocktails involving Red Bull and citrus vodka!) All throughout this, he sought to get a pardon for his past crimes with the help of political backers ranging from Fritz Mondale to Michele Bachmann.

Longtime readers of this blog know that Bachmann wrote a letter supporting a pardon for Vennes, not Petters.

The TNR cover claims the article tells the "untold story" of the Tom Petters Ponzi scheme - what horse crap!. That story was told by every major news outlet in the state, the news wires and national business news outlets. I covered the trial of Tom Petters for the City Pages and kept a blog titled Petters Info. I even won an SPJ award for my nightly video reports of the trial (sadly, swept away by Bradlee Dean's You Tube take-down with only one remaining). Beth Hawkins wrote a long article for Minnesota Monthly in 2009 titled "Trust Me" and covered the trial for Bloomberg. There were many articles about Petters in the Strib, PiPress and on radio and TV. The trial and conviction of Tom Petters was one of the top Minnesota news stories of 2009 and the last decade. Untold? Really?

Less covered, but covered nonetheless is the saga of Michele Bachmann's top donor of 2006 and convicted felon Frank Vennes. The first article mentioning Frank Vennes appeared in the Star Tribune written by Jon Tevlin. Compare these two passages, one from Tevlin's article and the other from TNR:

The ending of Jon Tevlin's October 4, 2008 Strib story on Vennes:

"From a basement vault, agents took boxes and buckets of silver and gold coins, trays of jewelry, five stacks of $100 bills, boxes of gem stones, silver plates and Rolex watches. Agents also seized diamond rings and numerous paintings, including dozens with religious themes, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead."

The ending of the TNR article:

"When FBI agents raided his home back in 2008, they cracked open a basement vault. Amid the buckets of gold coins and stacks of hundred dollar bills, they found a trove of religious paintings, including one of Lazarus rising from the dead."

Geez, ending an article with the image of Lazarus rising from the dead - that deserves an encore. Shameless!

Shortly after the 2008 FBI raid that discovered Frank's treasure trove, investigative reporter Karl Bremer wrote one article after another on Frank Vennes. Karl's excellent muckraking articles appeared on Minnesota Independent, Dump Bachmann and the Ripple in Stillwater blog. I've added additional information about Frank Vennes here and at my Vennes Info blog. I have the only courtroom sketches of Frank Vennes and his cohorts.

Appropriating the research of Minnesota reporters, Mariah Blake makes mistakes as well. Blake and TNR describe the Petters Ponzi scheme as a "$36 Billion Ponzi swindle". $36 billion is the amount that passed through Petters, but the total amount actually lost is now described as $3.8 billion.

For comparison, there's a Think Progress article today using the much smaller $17 billion figure for Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

There is a big chapter in our book The Madness of Michele Bachmann about Frank Vennes, so don't bother reading The New Republic's boring, error-riddled article. Our book's official publication date is December 12th.

As Steve Buttry says on his blog:

Perhaps you got away with plagiarism or fabrication in college. Perhaps you got caught plagiarizing for a term paper and the university’s punishment wasn’t too bad. If that’s the case, you need to change your thinking if you want to succeed in the news business. Newspapers can use plagiarism-detection software to screen reporters’ stories before they run. The Internet gives readers and interest groups powerful tools that will help them detect or even accidentally stumble across your cheating. A reader who has set up a Google news alert in an area that interests her could receive e-mail messages calling attention to your story and the story you stole from. If that reader e-mails those stories to your editor, your career will be over before the day ends and you’ll be an item in Romenesko or Regret the Error..

For reporters like Mariah Blake and Matt Taibbi, Steve Buttry has another blog post with a lesson on how to use other writers' work while giving them the attribution they deserve.

POSTSCRIPT: TNR left their fingerprints at the scene of the crime... They stole a photo without credit that appears on Karl Bremer's Ripple in Stillwater blog and nowhere else. I was at the courthouse when Karl took that photo. It captures Vennes in full flight from reporters with Karl in pursuit. Karl ran after Vennes for several blocks snapping pictures of the fleeing felon. That's the sort of effort real reporters put into getting a story.

Karl sued and settled with the New Republic for an undisclosed sum.