Jury awards record verdict against BMO Harris

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A federal jury in St. Paul on Tuesday afternoon awarded $564 million in damages in a lawsuit filed in connection with Twin Cities businessman Tom Petters’ Ponzi scheme – the largest recorded jury verdict in Minnesota.

Tom Petters

The jury ruled that BMO Harris Bank must pay $484 million in compensatory damages and nearly $80 million in punitive damages to the bankruptcy trustees handling Petters’ case. An estimated $400 million in prejudgment interest, dating back to when the case was filed in 2012, means BMO Harris could be liable for about $1 billion, said Doug Kelley, the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the recovery of funds in Petters’ $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme, the biggest financial crime in Minnesota history.

Kelley filed the lawsuit against M&I Bank in federal bankruptcy court in St. Paul in 2012, alleging aiding and abetting fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and civil conspiracy. ,  M&I Bank was acquired by BMO Harris Bank in 2011.

Kelley said bank officials were complicit in Petters’ illegal operations by ignoring multiple red flags as they handled his business accounts before 2008 in order to protect a lucrative banking relationship.

More than $41 billion “flowed through a single checking account during the seven years that they had Petters as a customer,” Kelly said. “As a former white-collar crime federal prosecutor, I knew that was an astronomical amount to flow through a small-business checking account.”

Bank officials ignored multiple computer-generated money-laundering alerts connected to the checking account, he said.

“If they had done what they were supposed to do, they would have filed suspicious activity reports, which would have gone to the feds,” Kelley said. “They had 39 months in a row where they had suspicious activity reports where they turned all those alerts off. If they had reported this to the feds early on, it would have stopped this Ponzi scheme dead in its tracks.”

Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank officials said Tuesday that they “strongly deny” the allegations and plan to appeal the jury’s verdict and award.

“We are disappointed with the jury’s verdict, which is not supported by the evidence or the law,” BMO officials said in a prepared statement. “We will file a number of post-trial motions with the trial judge to reverse the verdict or reduce the damages, and we intend to pursue all avenues to overturn the jury’s verdict, including appeals. We are confident that we have strong grounds for appeal.”

Pursuant to a prior settlement in connection with another Petters matter, BMO Harris is entitled to recover approximately 21 percent of any amount that it pays to the trustee, bank officials said.

Kelley, who has been working since 2008 to help organizations and individuals who lost billions in the Petters’ schemes, said he was confident the jury’s verdict would stand. He said it could take 12-18 months to carry out the appeal process.

BMO Harris officials and Kelley were twice encouraged to discuss a possible settlement during U.S. Bankruptcy Court proceedings, Kelley said.

“There was never any indication that they might settle with us,” he said. “We kept saying, ‘Well, that’s fine. We’ll go to trial because we have every confidence that what you did was wrong.’”

Petters’ business empire imploded in 2008 when Petters Co. was revealed as a massive Ponzi scheme. Revenue from the scheme was used to prop up Petters’ legitimate businesses, including Sun Country Airlines in Mendota Heights, and finance acquisitions of other firms, including Polaroid Corp.

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