|By Jim Rutledge
CHICAGO, Ill. – For the second time in recent months, a U.S. federal judge has rejected a plea agreement by ex-sports memorabilia king William Mastro on fraud charges that he operated phony auctions and trimmed the legendary Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card to raise its value.
In an April 9 hearing, Judge Ronald A. Guzman ordered U.S. prosecutors and defense attorneys back to court on May 14, setting up a conference to decide whether or not to set a trial date for Mastro, 60, or to accept a new plea agreement.
Mastro attempted to plead guilty to the charges in February, but the plea arrangement was thrown out by Judge Guzman. During that hearing, the judge appeared to be dissatisfied when prosecutors proposed a 30 month prison term and a $250,000 fine. At the time, the judge cited sentencing guidelines that called for stiffer sentences for fraud, up to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
In a March hearing, Judge Guzman demanded an explanation from prosecutors why government attorneys were agreeing to the lighter sentence. Government lawyers filed a 17 page government memorandum on April 5, backing up their proposed 30 month sentence. Four days later on April 9, the judge again rejected the plea deal.
“I’m not sure what I’m getting into, so I’m not getting into it,” the judge told lawyers for both sides. Following the latest hearing, prosecutors and Mastro’s attorney Michael Monico declined to make public comments.
In the April 2 documents, prosecutors claimed that Mastro may have defrauded 50 to 250 clients. And lawyers in the case disputed the financial loss the victims suffered from the auctions. Judge Guzman told lawyers during the latest hearing, that he had received a letter from a collector who claimed he was bilked out of $10,000 by Mastro in 1998.
As the founder of the once popular and now closed Mastro Auctions, Mastro was indicted last year along with three associates on various fraud charges that including using shill bidders to drive up auction prices, defrauding his customers of sports memorabilia, dealers and collectors across the country, according to legal documents.
Honus Wagner card sells for $2.1 million
Collectors nationwide were shocked by the accusation that Mastro would alter one of baseball’s most sought-after baseball cards, depicting the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner. The card is from the T-206 series issued in premium cigarette packs.
On April 6, Goldin Auctions of West Berlin, N.J. sold a different Honus Warner card for $2,105,770 in an online auction – setting an all-time record price for the baseball card sold in auction.
The altered card has exchanged hands several times since it was sold by Mastro years ago. The card was bought in 2007 for $2.8 million by Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in a private sale.
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. Mastro said he bought the card in 1985 for $25,000 from a Long Island collectible’s shop.