Thomas J. Petters was a generous man, it would seem.
He gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike. And he has given millions to institutions of higher education.
Now it appears that Petters may have been giving away money he acquired illegally.
And as he sits in jail awaiting trial on fraud charges, politicians are scrambling to unburden themselves of the contributions they accepted when Petters’ reputation was sound.
The founder and CEO of Petters Group Worldwide, Petters, 51, was arrested on Oct. 3 in his suburban Minneapolis home.
Affidavits alleged that he and some of his associates were involved in an ongoing Ponzi scheme, luring investors with false information.
Through his attorney, Petters has maintained his innocence. A federal magistrate has denied his request for bail, on the grounds that Petters is a flight risk.
Three people have pleaded guilty in the case, including Deanna Coleman, the vice president of operations at Petters group and the person who alerted authorities to irregularities at the company.
Petters had enjoyed a reputation as a successful self-made businessman. His company owned Polaroid Corporation, Sun Country Airlines and other concerns and had revenues of $2.3 billion in 2007.
He was also someone who wrote big checks for various causes.
Federal records show that Petters made $226,000 in political contributions since 2000.
In Minnesota, he was a strong supporter of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican seeking re-election in a race against comedian Al Franken, a Democrat.
According to news reports, the Coleman campaign this week donated $9,600 it had received from Petters to the Boys and Girls Club. (The money represented $4,000 Petters had given to the re-election campaign and $5,000 that had gone to Coleman’s political action committee.)
Petters was also a financial backer of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who was first elected in 2006.
This week, Klobuchar donated to charities a total of $19,500 given by Petters to her election campaign or her PAC.
Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar has announced that he’ll give $3,300 donated to him from Petters to charity.
And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, is returning $4,000 in donations from Petters. (That money will go into the receivership estate that has taken control of Petters’ assets.)
Petters contributed to politicians in other states, including Republican senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
He gave $50,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee in 2002. And last year he donated to Democrat John Edwards’ presidential campaign.
Away from politics, Edwards has pledged significant sums to several colleges and universities including two gifts totalling $14 million to Miami University of Ohio, the alma mater of his son John, who was murdered in Italy in 2004.
Petters also established the John T. Petters Foundation in memory of his son. It gives scholarships to students who wish to study abroad.
In addition, Petters has given $12 million to Rollins College in Florida and more than $7 million to St. Benedict College in Minnesota. In August, he pledged between $250,000 and $500,000 to the University of Minnesota.