By Esme Murphy

If there were ever a Minnesota case where cameras in the courtroom would have been a benefit to the public, it is the Tom Petters case, in my opinion.

For four remarkable days in the winter of 2009, Petters testified, maintaining with a cocky flair, that he was an unwitting pawn in a $3.6 billion Ponzi scheme. It was all the work of his underlings he said, and that he had no idea what was going on.

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The trouble for Petters is that for two weeks in September of 2008, Deanna Coleman wore a wire and captured Petters clearly admitting to the fraud. There was a mountain of other evidence — there were the forged documents and invoices and the two decades of lies he had told colleagues and investors. But it was his own words that were the sword that destroyed him. He was convicted on all 20 counts.

This past week, Petters was back in court, this time with a desperate move arguing his attorneys had never presented him with a plea deal that would have maxed out his sentence at 30 years. He is currently serving 50 years and will be released when he is 97. Once again, it was Petters’ own words that trapped him.

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In order for this move to work, Petters had to acknowledge guilt, to accept responsibility. And even here he stumbled. Pressed by acting U.S. Attorney John Marti to admit he was the mastermind, Petters said “I wasn’t the mastermind, I orchestrated it (the Ponzi scheme).”

Asked if he was guilty of submitting fraudulent tax returns, Petters said no. His reasoning, “the income that was taken was fraudulent, but it was reported as income.” And so it went, throughout the hearing. Yes, he admitted guilt, but he also tried to manipulate his testimony.

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And just like in the trial, the prosecutor was there to dismantle Petters’ version of the truth. His is a fall as steep as any in Minnesota history. And in the broken man on the witness stand we still saw flashes of the deception that led to the biggest fraud in state history.

Esme Murphy