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Originally published Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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No justice as French go easy on Mastro

Why are the French letting disgraced Seattle developer Michael Mastro get away with it? Maybe we just don’t get French justice.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It’s baffling to us here in the U.S. why the French are letting on-the-lam Seattle developer Michael Mastro get away with it.

Last week a French appeals court let Mastro go, apparently to live out his days in the French Alps. He’ll be slumming it in an apartment that one French newspaper called “a mansion undergoing renovation — a comfortable situation but nothing luxurious.”

Said Mastro’s attorney after the French court refused to ship Mastro home: “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.”

Well, justice may not have been served. But dinner is!

It rankles enough that this guy misled scores of Seattle-area investors and then cut and ran — though not before scooping up a table-full of diamonds and emeralds to get his new life off to a glittering start. The ruling also means he’ll likely never have to face his 43-count criminal indictment. Now we have to hear about his victory meal, too?

As I said, baffling. Why are the French letting him get away with it?

The official explanation is that he’s so old, 88, that it’s inhumane to make him face prosecution, the French court said.

But with the help of a translator I read up on the coverage of the Mastro case in the French media. I detected a powerful ambivalence all along — including a sense by the French that Mastro didn’t really do anything that wrong.

“Incarcerating an old guy under the pretext that he made off with investment funds — what a shame,” one commenter said to the French daily Le Figaro. “We should leave him alone so he can take it easy in France and spend the small amount of money he’ll be allowed to keep.”

Wrote another: “It’s not as if we’re talking about a pedophile here. We’re going to judge American fiscal fraud now?”

Mastro’s Paris-based attorney has said the French are genuinely perplexed by the case.

“Everyone in France is waiting for a clear view of what (the Mastros) really have to pay back and for what they need to be punished,” attorney Thomas Terrier told the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Seriously? Bamboozling investors, then setting up offshore trusts in Belize to shield your Rolls-Royce and your 27-carat diamond from creditors and then, when that doesn’t work out, going on the lam — that’s morally ambiguous in France?

I know, if some disgraced French tycoon holed up over here we’d probably shrug, too. Outrage always cools the farther you get from the scene of the crime.

But there’s some cultural chasm going on here as well. The French are said to be notoriously skeptical of the wealthy — their president, François Hollande, once bluntly said, “I don’t like the rich” — yet the tone in the French media is that the Mastros have been knocked down enough pegs already.

One story depicted them as “two weakened retirees, walking hesitantly, looking tired, she with a lost look in her eyes.” Michael Mastro was said to lack even batteries for his hearing aid.

“If they have hidden millions, why have the Mastros not spent more on their defense?” their lawyer asked.

In France they have a saying about how Americans and the French view wealth. When Americans see a millionaire in a Cadillac, they dream of getting their own. In France, they dream of getting the millionaire out of the Cadillac so he can walk like everyone else.

Maybe that sums up the bizarre Mastro case. We figure he stole some of our Cadillacs, so he owes us one or a hundred. The French see he’s no longer behind the wheel, and that’s good enough for them.

Like it or not, it’s the French view that’s going to have to pass for justice.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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