Petters: Bonfire of the Ponzis

This week the Star Tribune reported that attorneys working on cases related to Tom Petters are seeking $1 million in legal fees, for work performed since Petters was arrested on charges of defrauding investors in an alleged multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. 

The biggest legal bill comes from Minneapolis firm Lindquist & Vennum, which is representing Petters and Doug Kelley, the court-appointed receiver handling Petters's personal and business assets since his October arrest, in bankruptcy court, according to the Strib. An insurance policy will cover the first $10 million in legal fees, so taxpayers aren't on the hook for the bills. But the Strib story made clear that if Petters ever runs out of money, the lawyers won't keep working.

Yeah, that's right. The laywers would stop working.

What would happen to Petters then?

In a life-imitates-art moment, we are reminded of Sherman McCoy, the protagonist of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's acclaimed debut novel about New York society and scandal in the 1980s. A self-absorbed, wealthy bond trader, McCoy becomes the most despised man in New York after he is falsely accused of driving the vehicle that killed a young black man from the Bronx. In fact, his mistress was at the wheel; she deftly avoids the scandal. McCoy loses everything: his money, his family, and nearly his sanity. In the final scene from Wolfe's novel, the penniless protagonist is facing his third trial in what seems to be society's endless, relentless punishment for his egomaniacal lifestyle.

No one knows yet if Petters is guilty (though the confessions of a whistle-blower and several of his close associates don't look good for him.) But if he is found to have defrauded investors, his life would become a breathtakingly cautionary tale of greed gone terribly, terribly wrong. With recent revelations of how Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme bilked the local riche out of their assets, our fair state is feeling a little meaner.

Scandal can be absorbing - hard to tear our eyes away from. But the great irony of The Bonfire of the Vanities was not that an asshole like McCoy got what he deserved. Instead, Wolfe's brilliance was pointing out how much everyone else got away with: the opportunistic preacher who used the case against McCoy for personal gain; the journalist who wrote biased stories about it for monetary gain and a Pulitzer Prize; the district attorney who based his re-election campaign on nabbing McCoy.

It's the holidays, after all - the season when we're supposed to look for the good in our fellow man. So, instead of gawking over Petters and Madoff, maybe we should draw an object lesson from what happened to McCoy. Maybe we should all look for the little ways we do what they are accused of - little ways we try to use other people for our own gain - and take a break from that. Maybe we should do something just to be nice. Happy Holidays.

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