Judge Rejects Plea Deal in Baseball Card Tampering Case

A sports memorabilia auctioneer’s attempt to plead guilty in a case in which he’s accused of defrauding bidders and tampering with the condition of a rare Honus Wagner baseball card was rejected by a U.S. judge.

U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman in Chicago today told lawyers for both sides he needed more information before approving an agreement that includes a maximum punishment of 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine and doesn’t require auctioneer William Mastro to cooperate in the prosecution of three co-defendants in a case where he faces a top term of 20 years.

“What does the government get out of this?” Guzman asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy DePodesta.

Mastro, the former principal of Mastro Auctions, was charged with one count of mail fraud when he and three other men were indicted by a grand jury in July.

Mastro was accused of concealing his trimming the sides of a series T-206 card of Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop for Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, to bolster its apparent value.

“Mastro represented that Mastro Auctions had sold the most expensive baseball card in the world,” in company promotional materials, according to the indictment.

Mastro pleaded not guilty on July 31. Each of his co-defendants also pleaded not guilty.

A resident of Palos Park, Illinois, Mastro owned the auction business until 2004 and was its chairman and chief executive officer from 1996 to February 2009, prosecutors said.

Rare Items

Other items that Mastro and former Chief Operating Officer Doug Allen are accused of auctioning while knowing their authenticity was disputed were hair from Elvis Presley and a purported 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings trophy baseball, according to indictment.

The judge questioned disparities between each side’s estimate of the amount of loss represented by the alleged wrongdoing. The proposed plea agreement wasn’t made public.

Defense lawyer Michael Monico told Guzman the difficulty arose from the shifting values of some of the items sold and the uniqueness of the case.

“I think this is the first case of its kind ever in the United States,” Monico said.

The Wagner card is “the Holy Grail of our hobby,” Bill Goodwin, president of St. Louis-based auctioneer Goodwin & Co., said in a July telephone interview. His firm sold one for $1.23 million in April.

Tobacco Taint

According to legend, Goodwin said, Wagner opposed having his image included with tobacco products, which is how the cards were circulated at the time.

The card was pulled from production, accounting for its scarcity. About 45 to 65 are believed to exist in varying degrees of preservation, according to Goodwin.

Prosecutors sought a sentence of as long as 6 1/2 years, DePodesta said. She said the terms were the product of negotiations she could not make public.

“What I’m buying here is a pig in a poke,” Guzman said, citing the absence of a presentence report. “I need more.”

He postponed the hearing until March 19. Afterward, Monico declined to comment.

The case is U.S. v. Mastro, 12-cr-567, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.