- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2010

Nearly one year ago, Alma Preciado, a once-prominent figure in Maryland politics and an area mortgage broker, listened as a judge called her Montgomery County’s own “little Bernie Madoff.” The judge told her to return $350,000 to a retired couple who lost their savings in a business deal with her or get ready to go to jail.

As it turned out, neither happened.

Preciado pleaded guilty in a mortgage fraud case but skipped her sentencing last summer, and the one-time radio talk show host who was once a Republican National Convention delegate hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

“She seems to be untouchable,” said Roger Vales, who, along with his wife, lost the $350,000 in a loan transaction with Preciado. She was facing nearly 10 years in prison at her sentencing.

As the months have passed without a trace of Preciado, Mr. Vales said, he has grown increasingly frustrated about whether more could have been done to keep the mortgage broker from disappearing.

Preciado, 60, who had past business ties in Mexico, according to court records, was not required to post bond or surrender her passport before her sentencing. Mr. Vales, weeks before the sentencing, warned prosecutors in an e-mail, “I think she is a high risk individual and at least an attempt should be made to prevent her from fleeing the USA.”

Mr. Vales has provided a copy of the e-mail to The Washington Times.

Robert A. Hill, senior assistant Montgomery County state’s attorney, defended the handling of the case. He said authorities look at two factors when deciding whether to seek jail for defendants before sentencing: first, whether they’re a danger to the community and, second, whether they are considered a “flight risk.”

“In this case, the defendant did not present a danger to the community,” Mr. Hill said.

“And with respect to the issue of flight, we made a number of considerations including that the defendant had been a United States citizen for approximately 20 years, that she had strong ties to the community, having lived in the area for a long time, all of her children and grandchildren live here, and she has been an owner of a business in this community for an extended period of time.”

He also said Preciado had shown up to all of her court dates and that before being charged, she had met with officials in the state’s attorney’s office and hired an attorney.

In addition, Mr. Hill said, the decision was based on the fact that in similar cases, defendants often try to make restitution to victims before sentencing.

“In short, our efforts in the Preciado matter were and continue to be directed toward making the victims financially whole again,” he said.

Formerly a local radio show host, vice chairman of the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus and owner of Metropolitan Financial Services in Silver Spring, Preciado was an alternate delegate at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

But her reputation and career unraveled as authorities began looking into a $350,000 loan deal that she brokered in 2005.

Under the deal, retirees Roger and Lourdes Vales loaned the money to a borrower Preciado knew who lived in Bethesda, according to court records. Prosecutors said the loan was supposed to be secured by real estate so the couple’s money would be safe if the borrower defaulted.

But no deed of trust securing the loan was ever filed and the couple’s money landed in the bank account of a District-based company called Pidegro LLC, which Preciado helped found, records show. Pidegro spent some of the money on a development project in Mexico, but then it closed after the deal collapsed, according to court documents.

Court records also show Preciado didn’t control the company’s bank accounts, however. The couple has sued both of Preciado’s associates in the now-defunct Pidegro company, but neither has been charged criminally.

Before her disappearance, Preciado disputed the government’s case against her, saying she never misled the couple about the loan deal and that others spent the money. Her attorney said she pleaded guilty only because she admitted mishandling about $6,700 in loan proceeds.

The only public clue as to Preciado’s whereabouts came from a family member on the morning of her sentencing last year, saying she had called from a phone number in the El Paso, Texas, area code on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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