Fla. Ponzi schemer implicates many others in crime
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.
MIAMI — Over two grueling weeks, convicted Florida Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein laid out in incriminating detail how far the tentacles stretched in his $1.2 billion fraud, pointing the finger at numerous lawyers, bankers, business people, relatives, friends and unnamed law enforcement officials and politicians.
The testimony, made public in hundreds of pages of transcripts, could form the outline of another wave of indictments that federal prosecutors have been promising for months. Rothstein, a 49-year-old disbarred lawyer, was questioned in December by about 30 attorneys representing investors who lost money and some people who could face charges.
"This was huge and it takes a lot of people to pull off," attorney William Scherer said Wednesday. He represents investors who lost about $190 million.
Rothstein, whose scam involved supposedly lucrative investments in phony legal settlements, was testifying in several lawsuits arising from the implosion of his Ponzi scheme and bankruptcy of the once high-flying law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
He insisted throughout the deposition that he was telling the complete truth in hopes that a federal judge will shave time off his 50-year prison sentence. Rothstein initially fled to Morocco with $15 million when the scam imploded in fall 2009 and considered suicide, but said he had a change of heart.
"I made a decision to come back, turn myself in, go to prison and tell the government everything I knew about everyone else that had committed crimes," Rothstein testified. "And everything about my crimes."
Rothstein implicated his former partners, staff and others at his now-defunct Fort Lauderdale law firm. He pointed the finger at unnamed local politicians, judges, police officers and sheriff's deputies, claiming he paid at least $1 million in cash bribes and allowed them to live his "rock-star lifestyle" of private jets, prostitutes, sporting events and strip clubs.
He accused an auto dealer executive who was best man at his 2008 wedding and another close friend who runs a high-end jewelry store. He ratted out his own uncle.
Rothstein said one former attorney colleague impersonated judges on telephone conference calls designed to fool investors, and he said judges' signatures were forged on fake documents. Executives at two banks were in on the scheme, he said. Money from the Mafia was laundered.
"They were all involved at some way ultimately funding or assisting the Ponzi scheme," Rothstein said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Lavecchio, who sat through the entire deposition, cited "governmental investigatory privilege" in preventing Rothstein from naming names of any political or law enforcement figures during his testimony. So far, seven people besides Rothstein have been charged, with five pleading guilty and a sixth preparing to do so.
At one point during the marathon deposition, a lawyer compared him to fellow Ponzi fraudster Bernard Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence. Rothstein begged to differ.
"Whoa, whoa, are you suggesting that Bernie Madoff, who worked to help other people that were in the know get away with his crime, that I'm the same?" Rothstein said. "You're not even close. Mr. Madoff should have taken me, and I'm proud to say this, as an example of what you do when you want to do the right thing. Because if you think he did that by himself, then you don't know anything about how these crimes work."
Attorneys for Rothstein's former partners and the others he is accusing of wrongdoing say he's being a consummate con man once more, falsely implicating others in hopes of getting out of prison.
"We would expect Mr. Rothstein to say whatever he has to say to get out of prison in his lifetime," said Fred Haddad, who represents former Rothstein partner Russell Adler.
While Rothstein admitted many crimes, he vehemently denied any connection to the 2008 strangulation death of a former law partner, Melissa Britt Lewis, with whom he said he had a previous intimate relationship.
"She was murdered because she knew too much, right?" asked attorney Mary Barzee Flores, a former judge who represents a bank implicated in the scheme.
"Excuse me? Are you attempting to insinuate that I had something to do with that poor girl's death?" Rothstein replied. "Have you lost your mind?"
"You would deny that?" Barzee-Flores shot back.
"You're disgusting. Everyone knows that I wasn't involved in it. That's disgusting," Rothstein answered.
The ex-husband of Rothstein's former top assistant, Debra Villegas, is charged with killing Lewis and dumping her body in canal. Tony Villegas has pleaded not guilty. Debra Villegas is serving a 10-year sentence for her role in the Ponzi scheme.
To view the Rothstein transcripts at the Conrad Scherer law firm: http://www.conradscherer.com/rothstein.asp