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Petters returning to court, seeks less prison time

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Convicted Minnesota businessman Tom Petters returns to federal court this week to try to shorten his 50-year prison term.

The attempt to get 20 years removed might be Petters' last chance to go after a lighter sentence for a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme, the Star Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/H5vEXF ). The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court have already rejected his attempts to set aside his 2009 conviction and/or cut his prison term.

Petters, now 56, is to take the stand Wednesday in a courtroom in St. Paul. The main witnesses against him at the hearing will be the attorneys who defended him during his jury trial in 2009.

He was convicted on 20 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. He's serving his sentence in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.

At the heart of the hearing is whether federal prosecutors offered Petters a plea deal with a sentence capped at 30 years, whether Petters' attorneys relayed that offer to him, and whether he had an opportunity to accept it.

His defense team says a 30-year plea deal was discussed with Petters multiple times and that he rejected it on each occasion.

In his appeal, Petters says his attorneys back then failed to inform him about the plea offer before trial. His current attorney, Steven Meshbesher told the newspaper that he believes a 2012 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court bodes well for Petters' case.

The high court determined in that ruling that a defense attorney did not act in his client's best interest when he received a written plea offer from prosecutors but did not present it to the defendant before it expired.

"This case makes it clear that any discussion between prosecutors and defense attorneys has to be relayed to the defendant," Meshbesher said. "The defendant has to make the choice whether to accept it, not the lawyer."

Attorney Christopher Madel, who's representing the Petters defense team in the sentencing appeal, said, "The motion is laughable that these incredibly accomplished attorneys would do what is alleged with this (allegation) coming from the most accomplished fraudster in Minnesota history."

The U.S. attorney's office insists in briefing papers filed with the judge that the Petters motion should be tossed if Petters does not prove that a formal plea offer existed and was not presented to him and that he "would have admitted his guilt and pleaded guilty" if given the opportunity.

Meshbesher said Petters did not learn about the possible plea offer until after his December 2009 conviction.

The attorney called Petters' 50-year sentence "disproportionately harsh" compared with other defendants in the case. Meshbesher added that Petters told his defense team "on multiple occasions" that he would plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of five to 20 years.

According to testimony and documents presented at trial, Petters Co. Inc. used fake purchase orders and bogus bank records to persuade investors to finance what they were told would be purchases of electronics such as big-screen televisions that PCI would resell to discount retailers such as Sam's Club and Costco. In reality, the prosecution contended, the merchandise never existed and the sales never took place.

Petters testified that he had thought PCI, an arm of his now defunct Petters Group Worldwide, was conducting real deals involving real merchandise.


Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com