LAS VEGAS — A father and son from Japan can be freed from federal custody to live with relatives in a rented Las Vegas apartment pending trial on fraud charges in what prosecutors call a $1.5 billion international Ponzi scheme, a judge decided Wednesday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach acknowledged a federal prosecutor's argument that former MRI International Inc. executives Junzo Suzuki and his son, Paul Suzuki, had the money to flee the country before trial and could be motivated to avoid trial and the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison.
Ferenbach also was told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could deport the two men if they're freed.
But the judge said that wouldn't make sense after the 70-year-old father and 40-year-old son were extradited from Japan to the U.S. They arrived in custody in Las Vegas last week and pleaded not guilty to charges against them.
Prosecutor Danny Nguyen told Ferenbach the Suzukis reaped a combined $22.5 million in four years of a scheme that led a jury to find company chief Edwin Fujinaga guilty in November of 20 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.
In court documents, U.S. attorneys compare Fujinaga to the biggest-ever U.S. Ponzi schemers: Bernard Madoff in New York, Allen Stanford in Houston, Scott Rothstein in Miami and Thomas Petters in Minnesota. Prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence the 72-year-old Fujinaga to 50 years in prison. He's due for sentencing May 23.
Prosecutors said that from about 2009 to early 2013, more than $1 billion from more than 10,000 Japanese investors was wired to bank accounts in Las Vegas under Fujinaga's control. Investors were told they were buying claims from a medical collection business.
Fujinaga was found guilty of using new investors' money to pay off previous investors while he lived a lavish lifestyle in Las Vegas, California and Hawaii.
Nguyen said the Suzukis could face a theoretical sentence of up to 300 years in prison if they're convicted of all charges.
Defense attorney Junji Suzuki, representing Junzo and Paul Suzuki, told Ferenbach they were in Japan and "didn't have an idea what Fujinaga was doing here in the United States."
Paul Suzuki also spent several years living and working in Hawaii, his lawyer said.
Junji Suzuki is not related to his clients. He said they have few financial assets remaining after settling a civil lawsuit related to the MRI International scheme.
"We are sincerely trying to make a resolution before this case reaches trial," the attorney said.