Former Senator Norm Coleman and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann wrote letters in support for a Presidential pardon of Frank Vennes to expunge prior convictions for money laundering, drug and gun trafficking. Other political figures including former Minnesota Governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty supported the pardon.
In 2006, during orientation for freshman Congress members, a Star Tribune reporter asked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R, MN) what her goal was as a new representative. Bachman gave a puzzling answer: “My No. 1 goal is to not go to jail.”
Next week, February 5, 2013, we may finally understand why Representative Bachmann made that statement as the top donor in her first campaign for Congress goes on trial in Federal Court in St. Paul, Minnesota for his role as financier for the massive Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Tom Petters. Tom Petters was convicted in 2010 for his role in the Ponzi scheme and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
On April 20, 2011, convicted money launderer and cocaine/gun runner Frank Vennes Jr., a close personal friend and a major campaign contributor of Minnesota presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, was indicted on federal fraud and money-laundering charges for his alleged role in the Tom Petters Ponzi scheme.
The origins of this trial go back decades when Frank Vennes Jr. was charged in May 1987 and convicted in North Dakota on federal charges of money laundering, cocaine distribution, and illegal firearms sales, to which he pleaded guilty and no contest. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Vennes was sentenced to five years in the Sandstone (Minnesota) Federal Correctional Facility. He served thirty-eight months in prison; was released on parole on December 12, 1990; and completed his sentence on September 25, 1992. Vennes claims he found God in prison with the help of a prison ministry.
In subsequent decades, Frank Vennes found his criminal record was an impediment to his new role arranging financing for Tom Petters’ financial empire. Vennes asked several prominent politicians to help him expunge his criminal record by writing letters of support for a presidential pardon. These politicians also received hefty campaign contributions from Vennes, his business cohorts, family and friends. The timing of Frank Vennes’s largesse led many to speculate that it was part of a “pay-for-pardon” plot.
Court documents state that Vennes raised money from investors directly and also induced hedge funds to raise money from investors to purchase short-term, trade finance promissory notes in Petters’s company, PCI. In return, Vennes allegedly earned more than $105 million in commissions from 1995 to 2008. Prosecutors now claim the total take for Vennes may exceed $350 million. On September 24, 2008, federal agents raided Vennes’s $5 million Shorewood home on Lake Minnetonka in connection with the $3.5 billion Tom Petters Ponzi scheme and seized “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,” along with diamond rings and artwork. Two days later, Vennes’s $6 million oceanfront home in Jupiter, Florida, was also raided. Four years after the raid, Frank Vennes is finally getting his day in court.
In a pretrial document filed with the Federal Court February 14,2013, prosecutors argued that Frank Vennes' s three felony convictions for money laundering, gun and drug trafficking should be permitted as evidence at the trial in February with an instruction to jury that Vennes’s past criminal conduct won't be used by prosecutors to suggest an inclination by the defendant to commit crimes. Instead, the evidence will be necessary to explain the peculiar history of fraud and deceit at the heart of every transaction Vennes controlled between co-defendant James Fry's Arrowhead hedge funds and Petters Company Inc. (PCI). In addition, it became necessary for the Vennes and Fry to conceal his criminal record from investors. Normally, prior convictions are precluded as prejudicial to juries.
In previous proceedings before a magistrate judge, Government attorneys successfully argued that Frank Vennes' prior convictions are an integral part of the alleged crimes Vennes and Fry are currently being charged.
In a pretrial document submitted to the Court January 23, 2013, attorney for Frank Vennes, Jim Volling made a last-ditch argument to have his client's 26-year-old prior felony convictions excluded from the trial. Volling goes on to disclose his strategy to counter the prejudicial evidence of his client's past criminality- he will call on additional evidence and character witnesses – as many as 45 witnesses testifying to Frank Vennes's "good acts" and rehabilitation. Whether Mr. Volling is referring to letters supporting a pardon for Mr. Vennes written by former Senator Norm Coleman and Representative Michele Bachmann remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that those letters and witnesses would be powerful evidence.
In their recently released trail brief, the Government stated they may ask the character witnesses about "...specific instances of the defendant’s past conduct relevant to the character trait at issue. In particular, a defendant’s character witnesses may be cross-examined about their knowledge of the defendant’s past crime..."
A Bachmann quote from her letter to the Pardon Attorney supporting a pardon for Vennes (see letter at the end of this diary):
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....If Bachmann is called as a character witness by the defense, will prosecutors ask her what she knew about Vennes from "personal experience"? She can't say she lied in her letter; her letter was addressed to an Assistant U.S. Attorney... and lying to a Federal law enforcement officer is a felony offense - just ask Martha Stewart who was fined and sent to a Club Fed for that crime.
Read a summary of the Government's recently released, 52-page trial brief at the Vennes Info blog.
See the interactive Frank Vennes Pardon Timeline at Dipity.
Much of the research for this diary comes from “The Madness of Michele Bachmann” by Ken Avidor, Karl Bremer and Eva Young, published by Wiley & Sons.
Additional information about the investigation and trial of Frank Vennes can be found at the Ripple in Stillwater blog: