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Monday, December 22, 2008

CAN YOU SAY PONZI SCHEME, TOO?

(I wrote the following column in October of 2008, and thought it might make interesting reading in light of the Bernie Madoff scandal which broke in December, with an update at the end.) I doubt that you have ever heard of 67 year old Robert Dean White, but you really ought to hear what he has to say. Federal prosecutors have an extensive library of the imparted wisdom of Mr. White, and my personally favorite “cut” is his description of the parent firm he worked for, “The Petters Group Worldwide”, as “…a Ponzi scheme.” They have recently been replaying that little tune in every hedge fund board room in Greenwich, Connecticut. It has been the Musak of the Bush era Neo-con dead-end investment club we have all recently become investors in. This is what becomes of people who actually start to believe that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the people running for public office. There is always a difference, even if it’s just their price tag.

Charles Ponzi (above -AKA Charles Ponei, AKA Charles P. Bianchi) was far from the first to invent this kind of scheme. He just put his name on it. He was an Italian immigrant who stumbled upon the International Postal Reply Coupon, a now defunct system of international postage. The price of IPRC stamps varied from nation to nation, and Ponzi convinced investors that he was buying the stamps cheaply in Italy, in huge bulk, and selling them for a profit in America. He promised a 400% return on investments and seemed to be making good on that promise. People actually paid him to take their money. Ponzi went from a penniless ex-con in 1919 to a millionaire in 1920: in July alone he made $420,000. And that was in 1920.

Then in August the Boston Post asked the U.S. Post Office how many IPRC’s Ponzi had actually exchanged and found out the number was zero. Ponzi was using new investments to pay off old investors, and pocketing a substantial profit. By September of 1920 Ponzi was in jail. The vast majority of his investors lost everything. A team of accountants searched valiantly for months but were never able to reconstruct where all the money had disappeared to. After serving his sentence and being deported Ponzi told an Italian reporter not to feel sorry for his victims, “Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price,” he said. “It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over.”

Tom Petters, the 51 year old High School graduate behind The Petters Group World Wide (“Partnership Defined”), a self described $2.3 billion investment group with 3,200 employees, founded his first company when he was just sixteen. He leased an office in downtown St. Cloud, Minnesota, out of which he sold stereo equipment to college students. When his father found out about the venture the budding entrepreneur was pulled up by his short hairs and forced to close it all down. But Tom was just starting slow.

In 1988 he formed The Petters Group. In June of 2002 Tom and Ted Deikel bought the name and inventory of “Fingerhut” from Federated Department Stores. A year later he bought s"eBid.com". Two years later he shelled out $246 million for "Polaroid". In October 2006 he joined with Whitebox Advisors to buy "Sun Country Airlines". In February 2007 he bought the marketing company "Juice Media Worldwide", and in November he became sole owner of "Sun Country". In 2008 his acquisitions accelerated. He bought "EducAsian" in January, the magazine conglomerate "Metropolitan Media Group" in July and the charter airline "Southwest Aviation" and "Enable Holdings, Inc.", both in August. And in September of 2008 the F.B.I. raided John’s offices, his home, and the home of Mr. Robert Dean White. Tom’s entire house of cards folded like…well, like a house of cards.

Just a month prior to his personal Goetterdaemerung, Tom explained to the fawning students of the Carlson School of Management, “You’ve got to figure out how to leverage and move things forward and not backwards. Sometimes sideways and left and not always how you had anticipated.” But evidently Tom did anticipate what was coming because he is heard on one of the F.B.I tapes admitting that he cheated on his taxes, and used an employee to create false documents for investors, but that he “didn’t know what choice” he had. I guess honesty was not a viable choice.

The Feds allege that for ten years Tom has been showing investors purchase orders to prove he was selling merchandise to Walmart. But when one investor finally checked with Walmart, the discount chain said the P.O. numbers were fake and they had never bought anything from any of Tom’s many, many companies. This revelation led to a Federal audit of PGW that showed $1.9 billion in the “in” drawer and $3.5 billion in bills, the “out” drawer. And since the Feds lack the imagination of the Wall Street types, owing more than you own equals bankruptcy. Ah, if they only had the imagination of Tom Petters, or of Charles Ponzi, they would know that being in debt was just another opportunity. Have you ever noticed that none of these wise guys have any interest in history? To me that explains a lot.PS: December 24, 2008 Page One ;"The Minniapolis Star Tribune";
"The man accused of trying to swindle Tom Petters' defense attorney out of $250,000 received a sentence Wednesday of nearly three years in prison Before sentencing, Derrick Riddle simply said to the judge, "Give me what you got." Hennepin County District Court Judge Mark Wernick sentenced him to 34 months with credit for two months served since his arrest in October....Riddle initially contacted lawyer Jon Hopeman, saying he could help influence a judge in Petters' favor in exchange for $250,000. ...Petters, once a high-flying Twin Cities businessman, is in federal prison awaiting trial on multiple fraud charges alleging that he ran a $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme for more than a decade."

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