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Calling him "a working fool," a federal judge sentenced Minneapolis warehouse and trucking company owner George Wintz Jr. on Thursday to 3 1/2 years in prison for bank fraud and embezzlement schemes he used to try to save his business.

Wintz, 73, of Minneapolis, looked stunned as he walked silently by a gallery filled with his employees and left the courtroom.

His attorney, Andrew Luger, had argued for an alternative sentence that would have allowed him to avoid prison and continue growing his business, which is thriving again.

Luger said Wintz recognizes he made terrible mistakes, but he did it to keep his companies going and his employees working. "He didn't do it for personal gain," Luger said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Otteson argued for a prison term within the federal sentencing guidelines, noting that Wintz had floated checks to get by tough periods in the past.

"He's a serial check-kiter and that should be taken into account," Otteson said.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery determined that the guidelines could bring nearly eight years in prison. But she imposed a shorter term because of Wintz's age and in recognition of his lifetime of industriousness in running legitimate businesses.

"I think you're kind of a working fool," Montgomery said.

Even so, she explained that she couldn't impose the "alternative" sentence Luger sought because Wintz's misconduct took place over an extended period of time, and because it wasn't the only time he had resorted to bank fraud to make ends meet.

Wintz wrote batches of checks among various business accounts at Pinehurst Bank of St. Paul and Northstar Bank, inflating the account balances.

Some Wintz family members and employees were recruited to get $1.9 million in "nominee loans" from Pinehurst to provide cover for Wintz and for the bank. A nominee loan is taken out by one person, but is really intended for another.

Had his Pinehurst overdrafts gone uncovered, the small bank would have exceeded its lending limits and risked a shutdown by regulators.

After a three-week trial, jurors found Wintz guilty of two counts of bank fraud and one count of embezzlement for taking money from his employees' retirement plan.

They acquitted him of helping the former president of Pinehurst Bank, John Anthony Markert, misapply funds to cover up Wintz's overdrafts. Markert, 58, of Mendota Heights, was found guilty of five counts of misapplying funds for his role in approving loans to cover Wintz's check-kiting. He was acquitted of scheming to defraud the bank. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.

A former senior loan officer of the bank, Gregory Paul Pederson, 44, of Roseville, was acquitted of all charges.

Regulators closed Pinehurst Bank last year and sold it to La Crosse, Wis.-based Coulee Bank, which moved the branch to another St. Paul location.

Wintz's company, Triangle Warehouse, issued a statement saying that longtime company executive Nancy Cook will assume the leadership of the company upon Wintz's departure. "We are confident that our customers will continue to trust us to handle their logistics business," the company said.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493