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Originally published June 5, 2013 at 11:56 AM | Page modified June 5, 2013 at 10:41 PM

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Mastros set free in France, but U.S. may still go after them

Appeals court says the 88-year-old developer and his wife won’t be extradited to the U.S., where they are charged with bankruptcy fraud.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Fugitive Seattle businessman Michael R. Mastro may well live out the rest of his life as a free man in the foothills of the French Alps.

A French appellate court Wednesday denied on humanitarian grounds the U.S. Department of Justice’s request to extradite Mastro and his wife, Linda, said Jim Frush, a Seattle attorney who represents the 88-year-old former real-estate magnate at the center of one of Western Washington’s biggest bankruptcies.

“I spoke with Mike, who was understandably very happy and relieved and indicated to me that he and Linda were about to leave for dinner,” he said.

The Mastros had been under electronic monitoring and restricted to their apartment after 6:30 at night as part of an earlier French order.

A federal grand jury indicted the Mastros on charges of bankruptcy fraud in August 2011, two months after the couple disappeared from sight.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle declined to comment Wednesday on the French court’s ruling, saying only that it was examining its options, including a possible appeal.

It’s likely the Justice Department filed a “red notice” with Interpol, a global law-enforcement agency, that puts 190 countries on notice of the outstanding arrest warrant for the couple, said Douglas McNabb, an international criminal-defense lawyer in Washington, D.C.

If the Mastros try to leave France for any other country, they could be held there and possibly extradited to the United States to face the criminal charges, McNabb said.

But if the French court’s ruling isn’t appealed and the Mastros stay put in France, “the ballgame is over with,” he said.

The ruling of the appeals court in Chambéry can be appealed to the Council of State, France’s highest judicial body and roughly equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University who teaches international criminal law.

A treaty signed by the two nations in 1996 requires each to honor a request to extradite persons charged with certain offenses that are punishable in both countries.

But there are exceptions, including one that allows either nation to deny extradition if surrendering the person “might entail exceptionally serious consequences related to age or health,” according to the treaty.

The French appellate court ruled that extraditing the Mastros could have such consequences, and wasn’t persuaded by the Justice Department’s arguments to the contrary, Frush said.

Developer’s downfall

Mastro’s four-decade career as a prolific developer ended in a spectacular crash in 2009 when three banks forced him into bankruptcy court.

Mastro told the court he had nearly $587 million in liabilities, including more than $100 million he owed to individual investors and local groups such as the Italian Club of Seattle.

Against those liabilities, Mastro reported assets of $249 million, most of it debt others owed him.

State regulators also charged him with breaking the law by making false statements to “Friends & Family” investors and selling unregistered securities, charges that Mastro denied.

Mastro and his wife disappeared suddenly in June 2011 after they ignored a bankruptcy judge’s order to hand over two giant diamond rings worth more than $1.4 million.

They officially became fugitives a month later when warrants were signed for their arrest. But those warrants were for contempt of court, a civil violation, and experts said it would be difficult to extradite the Mastros without a criminal charge.

Then in August 2011, the U.S. Attorneys Office filed a sealed criminal complaint against the Mastros, charging them with bankruptcy fraud.

The complaint was made public last October after the Mastros were arrested near Lake Annecy, in the French Alps, where they had rented a succession of apartments.

The next month, a federal grand jury issued a superseding indictment containing 43 counts for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.

The diamond rings, along with nearly 300 other pieces of jewelry, were seized in France in October after the Mastros were apprehended.

The collection is worth more than $3 million, according to the court-appointed trustee in Mastro’s bankruptcy case, James Rigby, who has recovered only a fraction of the money owed to creditors. The Mastros’ attorneys are fighting in court to stop the FBI from transferring some jewelry to the trustee.

The Mastros spent seven weeks in a French jail before a court placed them on supervised release with electronic monitoring pending an extradition proceeding.

Health concerns

In February, the three judges of the Court of Appeal in Chambéry ruled that the Mastros had been charged with offenses that were subject to extradition, but noted that lengthy incarceration likely would have serious consequences on their health.

The court’s 19-page ruling in February mentioned Mastro’s age and a serious head injury he suffered in a fall in Palm Desert, Calif., two years ago. The court also mentioned the “psychological frailty” of Linda Mastro, who is in her 60s, revealing that she attempted suicide shortly after the couple was arrested in France.

At a hearing in late May, the Justice Department’s representative told the French court that if the Mastros were extradited and convicted in the United States, they would not ask for more than two years in prison, Frush said Wednesday, citing information he received from Thomas Terrier, the Mastros’ attorney in France. Moreover, U.S. officials told the court the federal Bureau of Prisons was equipped to manage the Mastros’ health concerns, Frush said.

Terrier could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sorensen, the Northwestern University law professor, said the French government had discretion to extradite the Mastros despite the exception in the treaty, and said the Council of State had heard extradition appeals from the United States in the past.

Investor reaction

News of the French court’s ruling dismayed Kirkland resident Barry Bloch, one of the “Friends & Family” investors who loaned the developer money in return for pledges of interest payments.

“What a joke,” Bloch said after hearing from a reporter of the ruling.

Bloch and his wife, Teresa, loaned Mastro money and knew him for about four years before the developer’s fortunes unraveled.

“It didn’t bankrupt us, but it’s a sizable amount of money, and it’s disgusting that he isn’t brought to justice,” said Barry Bloch, 68.

He recalled an exchange with the developer at Mastro’s Seattle office on Rainier Avenue South as the real-estate market was imploding, but before the banks forced Mastro into bankruptcy court.

“I asked him how he sleeps at night, and he said, ‘I sleep like a baby.’ That spoke volumes,” Bloch said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt

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