By Karl Bremer
Was Vennes trying to buy political support for a presidential pardon through the disbursement of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians who might be sympathetic to his plight? While there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Vennes was buying influence with politicians who supported his pardon efforts, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he donated so much money to those whose support he sought and received, particularly those like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (MN-6) for whom he wasn’t even a constituent. At the very least, money appears to have bought the ear of Minnesota politicians for Vennes.
“On the one hand, it’s not unusual for a member of Congress to write letters on behalf of their constituents, and these letters are sometimes helpful to the process,” says a former government official familiar with the pardon process. “On the other hand, it would obviously be problematic if these were made in exchange for campaign contributions, whether express or implied. It is highly unusual for someone to write a letter on behalf of a nonconstituent,” the official noted.
Indeed, the House Ethics Manual addresses that issue specifically.
“If a member has personal knowledge regarding a matter or an individual, he or she may always communicate that knowledge to agency officials,” the manual states. “As a general matter, however, a member should not devote official resources to casework for individuals who live outside the district.”
Bachmann and Pawlenty—both of whom are running for president—and Coleman have refused repeatedly to respond to inquiries from myself about Frank Vennes Jr. But one common thread connects them—and former President George W. Bush—to the convicted money launderer: the controversial faith-based drug/alcohol rehab ministry Teen Challenge.
Bachmann responded vaguely to WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy in October 2008 about her relationship with Vennes, which she said began with Minnesota Teen Challenge:
“I knew Frank Vennes through Teen Challenge and saw that he had made a remarkable transformation in his life, and he told me his goal was to give as much money as he could to charity so that more people could find freedom in their life. And I thought that was great, so I supported him.”
Coleman, responding to an inquiry about Frank Vennes Jr. from MinnPost reporter Eric Black last April, also said he knew Vennes through Teen Challenge but added: “I am not privy to, or aware of, what role he may have played in the Petters saga. My advocacy for Frank nearly a decade ago pre-dated anything I am aware of that had to do with Tom Petters.”
Although he has never been clear about his relationship with Vennes, Pawlenty shares a common interest with Vennes in Minnesota Teen Challenge too. Besides steering Minnesota Teen Challenge investments to Petters’ company, Vennes served on the Minnesota Teen Challenge Board of Directors with Mary Pawlenty, Tim Pawlenty’s wife. And in 2009, Pawlenty donated nearly $86,000 from his defunct gubernatorial campaign fund to Minnesota Teen Challenge.
Teen Challenge was a favorite charity of President Bush’s as well. He spoke highly of the organization in the 2006 video below. He went to bat for them in his first term as governor of Texas when a state agency threatened to take away Teen Challenge’s operating license for failing to follow regulations, according to this Frontline report. Bush was keynote speaker at the 2010 Teen Challenge Wisconsin Banquet in
Was it President Bush himself who asked for that second look when he saw a kindred soul in Vennes’ deep involvement with Teen Challenge? Or was someone else running interference for Vennes at the White House?
"Honestly, it is a real shame that the Pardon Attorney can't command more respect in his own agency -- which is precisely what has made the Justice Department so unhelpful to the President in clemency matters over the past 20 years.”
Some in the academic and legal community who follow presidential pardons closely fear that cases such as Vennes’ could taint the process so that less-politically-connected pardon candidates won’t get a fair shake. Or, that politicians will fear recommending a pardon for anyone, regardless of the merits of their case.
Once headed for a pardon by President Bush for his earlier crimes, Frank Vennes Jr. could be headed for prison again instead. It’s a strange twist of fate for a former North Dakota pawnbroker-turned-multimillionaire and felon who once counted among his friends two current candidates for the White House and some of Minnesota’s leading political figures.
Vennes’ fraud and money-laundering trial is scheduled to begin in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis February 6, 2012—right in the middle of presidential primary season. That might focus enough attention on Vennes’ pardon to get some politicians to explain their cozy relationship with him. It might also spur others to address the concerns expressed above about flaws in the pardon process itself.
Stay tuned--things could get very interesting before this is all over.
UPDATE: Vennes indicted July 19 on 24 counts of fraud, money laundering and making false statements.
Additional research and graphic artwork by Ken Avidor.
Read Part 1 of "Lawyers, Guns & Money" here.
Read Part 2 of "Lawyers, Guns & Money" here.