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Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - Page updated at 09:42 A.M.
As young salesman, Rossi stuck with his boss amid fraud scandal
By Susan Kelleher
Then 24, Rossi worked the phones and tagged along with sales agents who earned their swagger selling million-dollar properties and investments in the company itself.
But a year into Rossi's career, Capretto filed for bankruptcy, and federal agents began building a criminal case against its owner, Melvin G. Heide, who eventually landed in prison for fraud.
Sales agents began leaving Capretto when the scheme came to light in 1984. Rossi stayed, and even followed Heide to a new firm. He worked under Heide for five more years, and left the company after nearly eight to run for public office at age 32.
Rossi, now 44, touts his business experience as he campaigns to become Washington's first Republican governor in two decades. That experience consists of nearly 20 years as a real-estate salesman and landlord, with about a third of it spent working for Heide.
"If I was running for governor, it wouldn't be something I'd be bragging about," said Stuart Looney, a Missoula, Mont., accountant who left his job as Capretto's vice president and controller in 1982, a year before Rossi arrived.
"The people who got hurt were little old ladies," he said. "Schoolteachers who put in their life savings."
Rossi was never accused of wrongdoing, and Heide said Rossi shouldn't be tarnished by his scandal. "I've gone through difficult times," he said. "Dino hasn't."
In an interview, Rossi offered sometimes-conflicting explanations for his decision to continue working for Heide. He said he was ignorant of harm done to people, he thought everyone was going to be repaid, and that he naively trusted a man who had treated him fairly.
"Yeah, OK, I'll admit to being gullible," Rossi said. "And that is true. But it's one of those lessons in life that I've learned, and that's to have your eyes a little wider open than what I did at that point."
Few would expect a new agent such as Rossi to discern that Capretto & Clark was near financial collapse when he started his career. To a newcomer, the ringing phones and daily sales sheets represented a thriving business.
Rossi had worked as a janitor while he attended Shoreline Community College and Seattle University. His job at Capretto gave him an opportunity to sell the kinds of buildings he had only cleaned at night.
Capretto agents tended to see themselves as a family, with Heide their father figure.
Heide was a wily salesman with a knack for salvaging soured deals. Agents flocked to his office couch with skittish clients, confident that he would smooth ruffled feathers and provide fast financing to seal troubled deals, agents said.
"He made you money," said Mark Goldberg, who worked at Capretto for nearly six years before starting his own firm in 1985. "We're talking about a whole different level of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions."
Heide not only negotiated deals; he also financed them, making it easier for agents to sell property than if the buyers had to rely on seller financing or conventional bank loans.
For years, Heide solicited loans from clients who were sitting on tens sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from the sale of income property. He paid those clients interest rates as high as 20 percent while using their money to buy other apartment buildings and make loans to other clients for a fee.
Prosecutors said Heide defrauded investors by leading them to believe that money they had loaned him was secured by ownership interest in property. Capretto's bankruptcy revealed that some investments were virtually worthless because Heide used inflated appraisals to attract more investors to a single property, gave others first claim on the property in the event of a problem, or didn't file paperwork.
When Capretto filed for bankruptcy in December 1984, it owed about $40 million to some 800 creditors, including Shoreline Savings Bank, which was forced into a merger because of losses.
Among Capretto's victims: two of Rossi's closest associates, who, collectively, were owed at least $29,000 in commissions.
By the summer of 1985, Heide was drowning in bad publicity: A Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation detailed how Heide devastated investors and damaged Shoreline, and bankrupted a previous real-estate firm with a similar scheme in 1971.
The move to Imperial
Capretto folded in July 1985, and Heide moved his license to Metropolitan Real Estate for a month and then to Imperial Real Estate, a now-defunct Seattle firm co-owned by Heide's live-in girlfriend, Sophia Wong.
State licensing records show Rossi followed Heide to each of those agencies within days.
Rossi defended his move to Imperial, noting that Heide was only "an employee" there. But court records show that Heide was far more. Memos filed in federal court describe Heide as "the driving force behind Imperial" and the company's general manager of real-estate brokerage from August 1985 to his sentencing for fraud in 1990.
Heide led the sales staff on twice-weekly property tours, conducted thrice-weekly staff meetings and supervised the company's two sales managers, according to the memos.
Heide also had a financial stake in the company. Imperial paid Heide 5 percent of its gross commissions over $1.5 million and gave breaks to Capretto's creditors, including reduced commissions on properties that were bought or sold through Imperial, court records show.
Heide was back in the news in 1987, when Shoreline Savings paid Capretto creditors $5.8 million in cash and real estate to settle a racketeering suit alleging illegal dealings with Heide.
In August 1989, Heide was indicted by a federal grand jury. Seven months later, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to Shoreline Savings, and to defrauding a Tacoma couple of $400,000 they had loaned him. In that case, the indictment said Heide promised to secure their money in a motel, telling them it was worth more than it was. He later filed papers changing the ownership interest in the motel, making their investment "virtually worthless," according to the indictment.
Heide was sentenced to three years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution to seven couples affected in the case and serve five years of probation. Before his sentencing, Heide's attorney filed documents stating that Heide would resume working at Imperial after his release, and he did so, according to a former agent.
In a recent interview, Rossi gave several explanations for his continued association with Heide.
He said he "ended up" going to Imperial because other Capretto agents did.
"One of the reasons why Capretto was a good place to be," he said, "was they spent more money than anybody on advertising, and you actually got to put your name on the ad, and Imperial was doing the same thing."
Rossi said Imperial was not Heide's company but acknowledged that Heide did work there: "He was a sales manager, yeah, not the sales manager."
Told that Heide was the general manager of sales at Imperial, Rossi appeared surprised: "Was he?" he asked.
Repeatedly, Rossi said his relationship with Heide guided his decision to associate with him.
"He'd only treated me fairly," he said.
Asked whether he cared how Heide treated others, Rossi said: "I didn't know how he treated other people unless I would have had some clients involved."
Rossi said he missed the articles on Heide because "I didn't take the newspaper at the time."
Asked if he heard anyone at work talk about the stories, Rossi said: "Well, I knew some of the people who lost money."
The financing end of the business was separate from the sales department at Capretto, he said, but he later acknowledged that Heide repeatedly approached him about finding investors.
"None of my clients ever put money in," he added, "and so I guess I didn't have any regrets."
Later in the interview, Rossi said that Heide told him " 'Everybody's going to get paid back.' He kept saying that all the way until the time he went to jail. Then I realized, this isn't going to happen."
As an "independent contractor" who shared commissions with the company, Rossi said, he was provided with merely a desk, a place to keep his license, free advertising with his name on it, and staff to write up transactions.
Rossi insisted that he quit when he learned Heide had been released and was going to return to Imperial.
"I kind of thought about some of the people I'd bumped into who had lost a lot of money, and obviously he had been convicted, and the court found him guilty as well, and I said, 'I'm leaving.' They weren't too happy with me," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm leaving.' I said, 'You're going to bring him back. I'm not going to have a guy who's an ex-felon be my sales manager at the company I work at. That's just not acceptable.' And so I left."
But state records show Rossi switched his license from Imperial in March 1992, six months before Heide finished his sentence and two weeks before Rossi announced his run for state Senate.
Wong, Imperial's co-owner, recalled that Rossi left because "he was talking about going for his career in politics."
Imperial's rules, such as a 9 a.m. start, didn't work with his plans and his family, she said.
Some agents, even those who said they remember Rossi fondly, questioned his continued association with Heide.
"I lost all respect for anyone who went to Imperial," former Capretto agent Linda Schaeffer said. "It meant you're incredibly stupid or you're willing to lay down with dogs, not to disparage dogs. After what [Heide had] done to people, it would be very hard for me to have confidence in anyone who would stick around such a tainted operation."
Former Capretto agent Goldberg, a Rossi supporter, said he understood why people stuck with Heide.
"We've all got to get paid," he said. "You gotta work and you gotta make money. We all take the path of least resistance." Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or email@example.com
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