|By Jim Rutledge
CHICAGO, Ill. — A federal judge has ordered the one-time king of sports memorabilia, Bill Mastro, back to court April 9 after rejecting Maestro’s proposed government plea deal of 30 months behind bars and a $250,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Ronald J. Guzman expects federal prosecutors to tell him why Maestro should not be jailed longer for charges stemming from his alleged massive and sophisticated fraud scheme of nearly 10 years including phony bidding and other acts.
Following a planned February sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman demanded to know from U.S. prosecutors why Mastro’s plea deal recommended 30 months in jail when federal sentencing guidelines for fraud convictions called for a maximum of 20 years behind bars.
According to several courtroom observers, the 60-year-old Mastro appeared shocked and downcast by the judge’s order. Judge Guzman said, “I don’t see any consideration (in the plea deal) given to the sophistication of the alleged scheme. What did the government get out of this (plea) deal.”
Michael Monico, Mastro’s attorney, told the judge defense attorneys and prosecutors were at odds over how much money Mastro and his associates stole from bidders in his auctions because the value of some collectibles purchased by the victims from the auctions had increased in value.
At the hearing, Judge Guzman ordered a March 19 hearing telling prosecutors to give him all the details of the plea deal arrangement. But, both Mastro’s attorney and prosecutors filed documents in a late-night filing on March 15, asking for more time to finalize any plea deal and other matters, thus the new April hearing.
A federal official said, however, the delay was the result of scheduling issues between the attorneys. The documents’ contents remain sealed by the court.
Mastro was charged in a July 25, 2012 indictment accusing him of running rigged auctions, defrauding collectors and altering the world’s most valuable baseball trading card, the T-206 Honus Wagner card. When he sold the card, the indictment reported, “Mastro knowingly omitted the material fact that he altered the baseball card by cutting the sides of the card in a manner, that; if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.”
The indictment also charged that strains of Elvis Presley’s hair that Mastro was selling were false. DNA tests showed years earlier that the hair did not come from “The King.” He was also accused of selling an 1869 “Cincinnati Red Stockings” trophy baseball when he knew there were questions about the trophy’s authenticity.
Also charged in last year’s indictment were Mastro business associates Doug Allen and Mark Thoetikos, former officers of Mastro Auctions. Mastro was forced to shut down his long-time Illinois business in 2009 in the midst of an FBI investigation into fraud and phony auctions initiated in 2007 by the Chicago FBI and other agencies. Mastro sold his collection in 2010. At one point, Mastro’s business was generating more than $50 million annually, he claimed.
Allen, former company president, and Theotikos were indicted on more than one dozen fraud charges “for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by collectors and dealers to protect the interests of the consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders. Allen was charged with 14 counts and Theotikos was charged with six counts of wire and mail fraud.
Former Mastro employee William Boehm was also charged with one count of making false statements to federal agents. No sentencing dates have been set for the former associates. Allen, however, may get a lighter sentence for helping the federal government solve an unrelated case also involving sports memorabilia.
Mastro made a deal with federal prosecutors to plea to one count of fraud at the February hearing and acknowledging that he altered the Honus Wagner card that has since fetched millions of dollars in a series of news-making transactions. In a 1991 sale, the card sold for $451,000 to NHL hockey star Wayne Gretsky and the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team Bruce McNall.
The card now belongs to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, who paid a record $2.8 million for it. Mastro said he bought the card in 1985 for $25,000 from a Long Island collectible’s shop.
“Bill accepts responsibility for the actions that led to this case,” said Mastro’s attorney, Monico. “For many years, Bill has dedicated himself to religious and charitable works.”
New York Daily News reporter Michael O’Keeffe, a member of the paper’s sports investigative team, and fellow team editor Teri Thompson published a book, The Card, in 2007. The reporters traced the Wagner card that first raised questions about the “True Story of History’s Most Desired baseball card.”
During the course of several months, O’Keeffe interviewed Mastro about the card; and at one time, was thrown out of Mastro’s office.