Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shed light on a controversial presidential pardon involving Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman
By Karl Bremer
And, based on the sequence of events outlined in those documents, it appears something happened at the White House regarding Vennes’ pardon petition sometime between April 2006, when the OPA recommended the White House deny the pardon, and Summer 2007, when the White House returned Vennes’ pardon case to the OPA and asked that they “take a second look at” it.
Frank Elroy Vennes Jr. was convicted in North Dakota of money laundering and illegal firearms and cocaine trafficking charges in 1987, served 38 months in federal prison in Sandstone, MN, and a decade or so after his release, began laying the groundwork for a presidential pardon. Vennes and his family were major campaign contributors to presidential candidates Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, and state Republican Party entities.
Bachmann, Coleman, Pawlenty and then-Minnesota GOP Chair Ron Eibensteiner all recommended Vennes for a presidential pardon during the decade Vennes and his family and personal lawyer showered tens of thousands of dollars on Minnesota politicians.
Former federal officials familiar with the pardon process who examined documents obtained by Ripple in Stillwater through the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that Vennes’ pardon was headed for approval after it went to the White House for the final time July 1, 2008.
This was not good news for Bachmann, who was in the midst of a tough re-election fight against DFLer Elwyn Tinklenberg. One of her top campaign contributors and personal friends for whom she had solicited a presidential pardon for earlier crimes of money laundering was now implicated in the largest Ponzi scheme fraud in the history of Minnesota.
“Regrettably, it now appears that I may have too hastily accepted his claims of redemption and I must withdraw my previous letter … While Mr. Vennes showed public regret, he still clearly needs to reconcile his inner struggles and I am no longer convinced that he would be an appropriate candidate for a Presidential pardon,” Bachmann concluded.
On Oct. 3, 2008, the OPA also sent a two-page fax, the contents of which are unknown, to Bachmann with the subject line “per your request.” However, the fax wasn’t sent to the congresswoman’s office, from which her pardon letters had been sent. It was sent to Bachmann’s campaign office in Minnesota.
“Ron — Wow—quite a surprising turn of events. Thanks. Ken”
Bachmann went on to win re-election with the Vennes’ substantial financial support and barely a mention of her close relationship with the convicted money launderer and Ponzi suspect in the local mainstream media. Coleman lost to Al Franken in the closest statewide election in Minnesota history. And Tim Pawlenty now is running for president along with Bachmann.
FRANK VENNES JR.’S RAP SHEET
“IRS agents investigating suspected money laundering by certain North Dakota car dealers were told that Vennes, a Bismarck pawnshop owner, had made numerous trips to Switzerland and might have experience in transferring funds to a foreign country. An undercover agent, posing as a Chicago investor, contacted Vennes and asked for help in transferring cash abroad. Vennes later admitted that in the next three months he and his codefendants received $370,000 from the undercover agent and transferred it, minus their substantial commissions, to the Bahamas, the Isle of Man, and Switzerland without complying with federal currency transaction laws.”
Vennes served 38 months in the Federal Correctional Facility in Sandstone, MN, was released in Dec. 12, 1990, on parole, and completed his sentence Sept. 25, 1992.
Following his release from prison, Vennes did not appeal his sentence or conviction. But he commenced a “Bivens action” against the federal government seeking $10 million in damages from “unnamed federal agents for entrapment, outrageous conduct, and willful violation of the tax laws.”
According to a judicial opinion from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Vennes testified that at the prompting of undercover agents posing as Chicago businessmen in North Dakota, “he made two trips to Switzerland to launder money provided by the agents. Vennes successfully laundered $100,000 on the first trip, but on the second trip, associates of Vennes made off with the other $100,000.
“When Vennes returned without the money,” the opinion states, “the Chicago businessmen revealed themselves to be members of the Mafia and threatened … to dismember his children if he failed to recoup this money (perhaps suspecting that their superiors would be none too pleased at the loss of $100,000 of government money). These newly-revealed mobsters then suggested that Vennes engage in illegal drug and firearms transactions in an effort to recoup the money and thereby avoid serious bodily harm to him and his family. Vennes did so, the efforts to recoup the money were unsuccessful, and Vennes was eventually charged with a panoply of crimes.”
Vennes told the court that “I did get involved with some drug deals, but I lost money on those too, or got ripped off, so that there was never any money to repay the agent.”
The District Court acknowledged that “the underlying factual situation … is wondrously bizarre. Especially fascinating is speculating about the scene which occurred when the undercover agents tried to explain the loss of $100,000.”
However, Vennes failed to convince the court that he was entrapped, most notably since he pleaded either guilty or no contest to the charges. In dismissing Vennes’ claims, North Dakota U.S. District Judge Patrick Conmy wrote that “The record reveals that at one point, Vennes purchased cocaine from his own source in Florida after haggling with an undercover agent supplier about price and speed of delivery. This is not the conduct of one coerced or entrapped into crime.”
Additionally, at sentencing, according to the appeals court record, “Vennes’s attorney stated that the presentence report was complete, fair and thoroughly professional. He further stated that he was not ‘in any way indicating that these government agents acted in an improper fashion.’”
Vennes argued that he pleaded guilty and no contest on the advice of his attorney, whom he accused of “ineffective assistance.”
In May 1995, Vennes began doing business with Tom Petters, through whom he eventually would make tens of millions of dollars in commissions for steering investors—many of them evangelical Christian groups and investors—to Petters’ Ponzi scheme. Three years later, Vennes began to lay the groundwork for his presidential pardon: cultivating Washington, D.C. power brokers, currying favor with Minnesota politicians by making hefty campaign contributions and eventually, soliciting them for letters of recommendation.
Vennes’ first foray into politics was a $2,000 contribution to Ted Mondale’s gubernatorial campaign on August 28, 1998. Mondale joined the Petters Group as an executive vice-president in 1998 also. And, according to a top Washington lobbyist who wrote Vennes’ first letter of recommendation for a pardon in 2000, it was through Ted Mondale, who worked with Vennes, and the connections of his father, former Vice President Walter Mondale, that Vennes first sought assistance for his presidential pardon.
In Part II of “Lawyers, Guns & Money,” Ripple in Stillwater will lay out the pardon and money timeline of the Frank Vennes Jr. pardon, and why it raises questions about the integrity of the presidential pardon process itself.
Research and graphics assistance by Ken Avidor