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What’s Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s relationship with convicted money launderer and Tom Petters associate Frank Vennes Jr.—and why did he want him pardoned?

By Karl Bremer

If Tim Pawlenty decides to run for President of the United States, at some point he’s going to have to explain his relationship with campaign contributor, Tom Petters associate and convicted money-launderer/cocaine-and-gun runner Frank Vennes Jr.

This relationship is especially relevant in light of Pawlenty’s recent donation of nearly $86,000 from his defunct gubernatorial campaign fund to Minnesota Teen Challenge (MnTC), a controversial Christian chemical dependency program that was once closely affiliated with Vennes and allegedly lost millions on account of that affiliation.

Like his Republican cohorts Norm Coleman and Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty’s connections to Vennes are intertwined in several ways: campaign con tributions, a request for a presidential pardon for Vennes’ federal crimes, and now, MnTC, where Vennes and Pawlenty’s wife, Mary, served on the board of directors together.

The campaign cash connection
Vennes and his family have contributed thousands of dollars to Pawlenty’s gubernatorial campaigns. Kimberly V ennes (Frank’s wife), Gregory Vennes, Stephanie Vennes (Gregory’s wife), and Colby and Denley Vennes, who have shared an address with Frank and Kimberly, each donated $2,000 to the Pawlenty for Governor Committee in 2002. Frank, Kimberly, Gregory, Stephanie, Colby and Denley Vennes each contributed $250 to Pawlenty in 2004 and $2,000 apiece in 2006.

The presidential pardon connection
Coincidentally, the same year the Vennes money started to flow into Pawlenty’s campaign coffers, Pawlenty’s name appeared in a request for a presidential pardon for Vennes sent by Senator-elect Norm Coleman.

In a letter dated December 20, 2002 and sent to “President George W. Bush c/o Karl Rove,” then-Senator-Elect Coleman said he was “well acquainted with Frank [redacted portion] and that I want to join “my friend, (former Minnesota GOP Chairman) Ron Eibensteiner and Governor-El ect Tim Pawlenty in urging President Bush to grant Frank Vennes a Presidential Pardon. ”

The roles of Pawlenty and Eibensteiner in seeking a pardon for Vennes are unclear. A Freedom of Information Act request did not turn up pardon letters from either one, and Pawlenty’s office did not immediately respond to requests for an explanation.

The pardon Coleman, Pawlenty and Eibensteiner sought was for Vennes’ conviction in 1987 on federal charges of money laundering, cocaine distribution and illegal firearms=2 0sale, to which he pleaded guilty and no contest.

Vennes was sentenced to five years in Sandstone (MN) Federal Correctional Facility, where he reportedly “found God”, and was released in 1990. Follo wing his release from prison, Vennes filed a petition for a pardon, which has never been granted.

The Minnesota Teen Challenge-Tom Petters connection
Vennes was a board member of MnTC as recently as 2008. Pawlenty’s wife, Mary, also sat on MTC’s board of directors during at least a portion of the time that Vennes served on the board.

But that organization now stands to lose millions of dollars as a result of MnTC’s investments Vennes allegedly steered to his associate, Tom Petters, in Petters’ alleged multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

Vennes is alleged to have been a facilitator, or conduit, used by Petters to lure primarily Christian organizations into investing in Petters’ companies through Metro Gem—one of Vennes’ companies—or through the Fidelis Foundation, which served as a fiscal agent for Minnesota Teen Challenge. Among those investors was Minnesota Teen Challenge, which allegedly lost $5.7 million in investments in Petters companies.

On Sept. 24, 2008, federal agents raided Vennes’=2 0$5 million Shorewood home on Lake Minnetonka and his $6 million oceanfront hom e in Jupiter, Fla., in connection with the Petters investigation.

A ccording to the federal search warrant, Vennes was alleged to have hauled in more than $28 million in commissions for his role in luring five investors to pony up $1.2 billion in Petters’ alleged giant Ponzi scheme. On Oct. 6, the assets and records of Vennes, Petters, Petters’ companies and other Petters associates were frozen by a federal judge, and many seized assets of Vennes and Petters have been sold off to compensate victims of the alleged fraud.

Still, the multimillionaire Vennes has not yet been charged with any crimes in connection with the Petters case. Nor has he been named as a defendant in any20of the lawsuits filed against Petters and hi s associates by alleged victims of the fraud.

Vennes’ ‘dirty money’
Michele Bachmann received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Vennes and his family and also wrote a letter of request for his presidential pardon. However, she retracted it after Vennes became embroiled in the Petters scandal.

Bachmann initially donated a portion of her campaign contributions from the Vennes’--$9,200—to MnTC in an apparent attempt to wash her hands of it. However, MTC returned the check to Bachmann, calling it “dirty money.” Bachmann later sent the money to another organization affiliated with MnTC.

Similarly, after the Petters scandal broke, Coleman donated $14,600 to the Boys and Girls Club in October, which represented the amount of money Tom Petters had donated to his campaign in this election cycle.

Gov. Pawlenty’s office did not immediately return requests for information about Pawlenty’s relati onship with Vennes or whether he intended to return any of Vennes’ campaign contributions.

However, one other question remains: Would a President Pawlenty grant Frank Vennes Jr. the pardon he believes he deserves?

Karl Bremer is a Stillwater writer and can be reached at saintcroix@aol.com.