News Commentary: Mr. Frank Vennes Jr. Indicted- An Exposed Wolf in Sheeps Clothing

         Soon after this blog was started the Tom Petters ponzi scheme was exposed.  One of the individuals involved in the scheme was Frank Vennes Jr. a professed evangelical who had ties to Teen Challenge, a prison ministry called Charis, and Northwestern College in Minnesota.  The initial article[i] called Mr. Vennes Jr. to task for being a wolf in sheeps clothing and those who knew and supported Mr. Vennes confronted this writer for jumping to conclusions and passing judgment without facts on Mr. Vennes. I recognized that my initial response did come from some anger, but the anger was related to what appeared to be blatant deceit.  The anger was recognized leading to a published apology.[ii] In January of 2010, this writer wondered what did Mr. Vennes actually know and commented about how we all need to stand for truth[iii]. See Mr. Vennes friends and voraciously defended the man and his reputation that doubt was caught on the initial impressions and anger.  It turns out the impression and anger was righteous and justified.

            His friends pointed out the fact that Mr. Vennes was not indicted no did he seem the target of the investigation.  It was that one fact that led to questions. Well, now there are questions no more.  As. Mr. Vennes has now been indicted. Apparently his finances had long ago been seized in relation to the fraud.  Sure, an indictment is not “proof” but the points of the initial articles were relevant and on target. See the question was always whether Mr. Vennes was a man conned, or an integral part of the con.  The current allegations point to his being an integral part of the con.  The Star Tribune article[iv] states that Mr. Vennes is on tape stating the empty warehouses will cause the scheme to “implode” and that the whole thing is “a little paper manufacturing plant.”

            See this shows appearance can be deceiving.  It illustrates that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. If you think you know a person, even had his deep faults confessed, he still can be seeking after that which is crooked and deceiving.  And Mr. Vennes is not really any different that any of us.  Each of us are capable of deceit and betrayal.

            In retrospect, there are lessons to be learned. While caution is always in order, there is righteous judgment and discernment.  The truth can be known without evidence of all the facts. Mr. Vennes is alleged to have actively conned others, and this writer believes that to be true.  He put both Teen Challenge and Northwestern College in positions that impacted them and threatened their existence. The root of the actions and deception was all in order for a handful of people to make a lot of money.

            Another point is no matter how well hidden things seem to be, sooner or later all the deeds in darkness will be exposed. Some, like the Petters scheme will be exposed in this life time before all. But when Jesus returns, every little evil will be brought into open. Nothing hidden! 

            It is also worth noting how easily any of us can be if we operate based on experience.  We think we can know a person, view their actions and conclude they are seeking after pure motives. Yet, there are many like Mr. Vennes or Ananias and Sapphira, or Judas that more is going on then the initial experience. With the disciples, none but Jesus knew what was in his heart, even when he left the last supper, pointed out as a betrayer, the disciples see were unaware of the darkness in his heart. He followed Jesus.  It is due to revelation of the Holy Spirit that Ananias and Sapphira were exposed and brought to death.  Some think that God is cruel for such actions. But it is that deep deception, the deceitful appearance and heart that God knows impacts and corrupts many. Their death was an act of love and righteous wrath. Now, I hope and pray that Mr. Vennes is not like Judas or Annanias and Sapphira. It is not too late for true repentance. However, the man has conned many for a long time and the veracity of anything coming from the man will need to be questioned.  For it is not the appearance of good works that is the fruit of repentance, it is true surrender to Jesus. Mr. Vennes faked it fooling many, but He has been exposed. The story serves as an example for all.  And if there are friends who still seek to defend the man, take it up with the creator, for Mr. Vennes in my mind is a deceiver and wolf in sheeps clothing that fooled many.

Trading on power and influence: The Petters, Madoff and Tri Energy Ponzi schemes

Well as it turns out Thomas Petters is no longer the operator of the world’s largest and most extensive Ponzi scheme. Bernard Madoff is now the proud holder of that title. He bilked billions in his scheme which operated largely on reputation and word of mouth. He used is reputation and influence to convince others that he could help them reach great profit. However, neither the Petters or the Madoff Ponzi schemes were the only ones trading on power and influence, they just were far more successful. A Ponzi scheme run by Tri Energy owners Robert Jennings and Arthur Simburg also used power and influence to con people out of money. The power and influence traded on was that of Robert Jennings position as pastor of New Life Community church. Each of the schemes utilized essentially the same techniques and the same factors came into play in each case.

The starting point of the cons is that of using their position and influence to gain favor with others. Their position and reputations allowed them to engage in subtle persuasion that drew others into their web of deceit. Once a reputation is earned or once a person has a position of power or influence within a community, they are in position to sway others. Of course, nothing sways others more than the appearance of success. Mr. Petters, Mr. Madoff, and the Tri Energy owners certainly showed themselves to be successful and used that success to build their position and influence even more. Mr. Petters and Mr. Madoff did so by heavily contributing to a variety of charitable organizations. Mr. Jennings and Mr. Simburg on the other hand just used appearance of beneficial spiritual meetings and spoke of humanitarian aid. The better they looked to others, the more likely they would be able to gain funds.

It was the positions of power and influence that often led toward others ignoring red flags. These men were in the position they were in for a reason, and they apparently were just better skilled then countless others, at least to those taken in by these deceivers. In each case, there were plenty of red flags if people just paid attention and used discernment. The main reason for it is they placed trust on these men, in part due to their position and reputation. Each deceiver certainly went to great pains to foster that trust and have people set aside any use of critical thinking. Then if you add in the appearance of being able to be part of an exclusive set that will be able to cash in on these men with the “great” skills at investing and turning profit. In fact a key component of many cons, and certainly one used by these individuals is the appearance of exclusivity and being part of a “special” group which will help you profit and get whatever you desire.

Ultimately, these schemes fail for one reason or another, but usually not due to those being conned waking up to the deception, rather the schemes can only go so far before they collapse or someone has a change of heart and exposes the fraud. One thing these schemes show is that no one is immune from deception. We all are easily deceived and can place our trust in people and things that will ultimately fail. We each need to attend to the warning signs that exist. We need not turn to any man and their influence and power and trust them to meet our desires. When we focus on building what we want, and depend on those other important people, the end result is destruction and chaos.

The Gospel offers another way. A way not focused on building for self, but one of surrendering self. It is taking our wants, needs, and desires and surrendering them to the King of Kings. However, the surrender does not just happen once, but ongoing, as desires to move and build for self arise, turning them over to the King of Kings. There is an ever ongoing process, for while the gift of salvation that comes from Jesus death on the cross offers redemption, the process is a daily battle of surrender and renewing faith. We can often turn to faith in deceivers, we all do, but through Jesus there is always restoration. Suffering comes, sometimes at the hands of trusting deceivers, but when you move beyond self to trust in Jesus, the suffering is recognized as temporary, no matter how it comes. Yet, we all can be still easily deceived. There are many promises out there, even promises of doing perceived good. Those that will fall away, will do so biting big deceptions and ignoring the warning signs, and get hooked by the bait offered by those in important positions. We all need to be wary and ever watchful and daily take our own desires and motives and surrender them to the King of Kings.