Businessman Jeffrey Gardner came to court Wednesday claiming that he and his investors were simply victims of the Great Recession. His business partner, former Viking Stu Voigt, argues that concussions suffered during his football career may have impaired his thinking.
The two face sentencing in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme that earned them convictions earlier this year, and on Wednesday one of those arguments fell flat. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz sentenced Gardner to 90 months in federal prison. Voigt faces sentencing on Thursday.
A jury found Gardner and Voigt guilty in February in a scheme that used money invested in Gardner’s Hennessey Financial LLC to pay off earlier investors and other debts instead of financing real estate projects, as promised. Gardner, the jury found, also courted new investors while falsely portraying his businesses as healthy when he knew them to be failing.
“Mr. Gardner was a victim of the Great Recession,” Schiltz said. “His investors were a victim of Mr. Gardner.”
Gardner’s sentence came after a long, emotional hearing that included statements from about a dozen supporters — family members and friends, many of whom also lost money in Gardner’s companies — and from victims including longtime pro wrestling announcer Kenneth Resnick, who said he and his mother lost everything.
“They had no problem taking our life savings,” said Resnick, who described Voigt as his closest friend for more than 30 years. “Just imagine having that kind of disdain for people.”
Voigt, 68, will be sentenced on one count of bank fraud. He was convicted of defrauding a Bloomington bank while serving as its chairman by failing to disclose debts Gardner owed him when Gardner applied for a line of credit.
By the end of the nearly four-hour hearing, a pile of crumpled tissues had massed on the table in front of Gardner as he spoke and listened to the testimony.
“I cared about everybody and tried to do everything I could to help people,” Gardner said. “I cried with a lot of investors.”
But Schiltz reminded the courtroom that he was there to sentence a man convicted at trial, not to retry the case — despite pleas for mercy.
Daughter Jessica Oeltjen said Gardner’s investors were “everything to him. We would sit down to dinner, and it was prayers for his investors.”
“We are not here today because the market crashed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lewis said. “We’re here today because Jeffrey Gardner lied repeatedly.”
Prosecutors had asked for a steeper sentence: 135 months in federal prison. Schiltz said he sentenced Gardner below the guideline range because of his age, 63, health and because he is financially destitute and unlikely to reoffend.
Voigt’s lawyers are asking for probation, far less than the 46 months being sought by federal prosecutors.
Attorneys Andrew Birrell and Joseph Friedberg say Voigt “likely committed the offense while under a significantly reduced mental capacity,” and they cite medical studies performed on Voigt’s cognitive functioning.
Those studies, the attorneys said, found that 80 percent of the impairment likely came from cumulative trauma suffered while playing football.
Resnick is expected to return to federal court in Minneapolis on Thursday to watch the sentencing of his former longtime friend.
Once able to command crowds of 20,000 fans with a microphone, Resnick told Schiltz that the fraud has made him now struggle even to talk to strangers.
For a moment Wednesday, Resnick and Gardner crossed paths as they left the courtroom. Gardner paused and stretched out a hand, while Resnick turned his head and kept walking.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755