Petters Q&A with Assistant U.S. Attorney Hank Sheaby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
MPR's Morning Edition took a deeper look at the Tom Petters case in and interview with Hank Shea, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who is now a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and is an expert in white-collar crime. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: Are you surprised Tom Petters was found guilty on all 20 counts?
A: No, I'm not. In this type of case, particularly when a defendant takes the stand, it is typically an all or nothing proposition, so I'm not surprised by the unanimous verdict on all the counts.
Q: Petters plans an appeal. What are his chances of succeeding?
A: Slim, probably none. There are issues that his attorneys will raise that have been raised in similar contexts, and from all appearances this case was run professionally, the case was tried well, and there really are no serious issues to be raised on appeal that I'm aware of.
Q: What factors does the judge weigh in deciding the amount of the sentence?
A: There'll be a report prepared for the court by the U.S. Probation Office. They will focus on a whole range of characteristics of the defendant, the nature of the crime, the impact on the victims. But the most important thing for sentencing will be the calculation of the sentencing guidelines that would apply to this as in any other case. And those guidelines, while they're no longer mandatory, are still to be considered by the court in imposing sentence.
Q: How does the Petters case compare to some of the cases you saw when you were a federal prosecutor?
A: Minnesota sadly has seen its share of big time white collar crooks. Prior to tom Petters, Hal Greenwood probably caused the most damage to our state and losses to victims, and that was 20 years ago. But Tom Petters' Ponzi scheme makes Hal Greenwood look like a petty thief. Without Bernie Madoff, Tom Petters would be the biggest white collar crook in the history of the United States in terms of stealing other people's money.
Q: You've seen a lot of white-collar criminals over the years. What drives otherwise privileged, wealthy, successful people to turn to crime?
A: Tom Petters in some ways is a classic conman. He is charismatic, he was conniving, he generously rewarded his enablers, as well as his cohorts, with all sorts of money and other incentives to buy their loyalty and silence. But he, like Madoff, took criminal activity to a level that we rarely have even been able to contemplate before. There's a lot of questions about why that happened, and I think some of them remain unanswered even after this trial. But when you get down to it, this was Tom Petters' scheme. He was the orchestrator; he was the man who was responsible for this huge, almost unquantifiable damage that has been caused.
Q: How many others like Petters are out there?
A: We don't know. The important thing I think for all of us to recognize is that the reason this case came forward when it did was because one person stood up and did the right thing and reported the wrongdoing to authorities. And there are other people out there who are Like Deanna Coleman. It's a question of courage. We don't know the whole story involving her decision to come forward, but we do know it took a lot of guts to turn herself in, and to then go and tape-record her boss. There are other people who are out in our community right now who are in the same position she was in who know about people cheating on their taxes or stealing money from vulnerable adults or lying to school officials. We need to create a culture and an environment where they too will step forward and report wrongdoing.
Q: Does a trial like Petters' serve to be some sort of deterrent for others out there, or is human greed too much to overcome something like that?
A: Punishment is necessary in a situation like this, and it will deter some, but I think the problem you raised is not going to be resolved by prosecutors or judges or trials. It needs to be addressed in a far more systemic way for all of us -- in our families, in our schools, in our communities. The problem of human greed is one that's been with us for the ages, but as a society we need to start doing something about our character, and our integrity, and our ethics now. And I hope that's what a trial like Tom Petters will do for all of us--to make us recognize that as bad as the economic times are that we're facing, this is emblematic of a crisis in our state and even in our nation. It's a crisis of integrity and ethics. We need to work together to somehow figure out how we can make the next generation behave differently than too many of our current generation have.