Every region of the country has its Ponzi villain, but it’s hard to imagine another who could match Fort Lauderdale’s pugnacious despot Scott Rothstein for the audacity of his $1.4 billion crime against friends, neighbors, co-workers and good taste.
A web of tragedies that might give both Shakespeare and Elmore Leonard pause, Rothstein’s reign played out right in front of our disbelieving eyes, as he flaunted his Bugattis and $10,000 suits on Las Olas Boulevard, leaving millionaires plundered, lives ruined and questions lingering about the mysterious deaths of two women close to him.
Fort Lauderdale public relations executive and author Chuck Malkus, who attended some of Rothstein’s over-the-top social gatherings, has chronicled the now-imprisoned lawyer’s rise and fall in a book, “The Ultimate Ponzi: The Scott Rothstein Story” (Pelican Publishing), which he will sign at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Books & Books in the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (1 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954-262-0255, MoAFL.org).
Two years in the making, the profile of this tacky, made-for-TV horror story is a spritely mix of Malkus’ own memories of the “vulgar arriviste” layered with interviews with former co-workers, the duped, the adversaries and the girlfriends, as well as deposition testimony, input from forensic accountants, psychologists and local attorneys, and reporting from South Florida media, including the Sun Sentinel.
The guilty, true-crime pleasures of what unfolds are undeniable, and Malkus keeps “The Ultimate Ponzi” moving with plenty of crowd-pleasing detail. Here are some colorful passages from “The Ultimate Ponzi”:
THE COLOR OF SPAM
Scott’s house featured a chandelier that supposedly cost $300,000 --- I don’t doubt it. An amateurish, hand-painted mural adorned the wall of one guest bedroom. … The dining room featured another chandelier, arches canopied in royal blue with golden draperies, and walls more or less the color of Spam. This room, all by itself, looked like a cross between a Golden Age dining salon and a fifteenth century Venetian brothel. The hand-painted ceiling in the master bedroom, with its flowing ribbons and random musical notes, looked like illustrations from a self-published children’s book. A downstairs bathroom also boasted a gold toilet, the contractor reported. “I always took some pleasure out of relieving myself in it,” he added.
His Las Olas restaurant Bova Prime was “a place where Scott’s fantasy of wealth, power and machismo, fueled by alcohol and the ubiquity of beautiful young women became contagious. You never knew when bluster might escalate to blows, when bodyguards might draw guns, and when the Fort Lauderdale police might arrive to separate rich posturing men with more ego than maturity, more testosterone than sense. That no one ever got bloodied, let alone shot, only added snickering comedy to the mild yet dramatic sense of danger. It was like being on an adult Disneyworld ride.
TOO SWEET TO STRIP
One roommate, paying her way through Florida Atlantic University by going on “stripping trips” to clubs in New York and Las Vegas, urged Kim to give dancing a try. “She had an amazing body,” the woman told [New Times’] Bob Norman. “She was very tiny, about five feet tall, and weighed about ninety pounds, with these double-D boobs. She was tits on a stick.” … Kim gave it a try over three nights at Diamond Dolls, a strip club in Pompano Beach. It quickly became obvious that she could not get over her self-consciousness… “Kim was just too sweet to be a stripper,” the friend said.
KICKING IT OLD SCHOOL
The aura of corruption, and in this case I mean fashion corruption, even infected Scott’s parents. “I hate to pick on his parents, because they seem like good people, but his father dressed in the most crazy way sometimes,” a Bova waiter said. “He would wear these Ed Hardy t-shirts with the rhinestones on them and these baggy, kind of rap-style jeans. I mean, here’s a 75-year-old man in the baggy jeans and an eighty-dollar t-shirt. It was comical. All the money, it was just like they won the lotto and didn’t know what to do with all the money.”
His collection of automobiles included … a pair of Rolls Royces, three Lamborghinis, four Ferraris (including a vintage model from 1974), various Mercedes, a vintage 1967 Corvette, a Hummer, a Cadillac Escalade, a 2009 white Bentley, and the vehicles most associated with Rothstein’s excess, a pair of Bugatti sports cars (2004 and 2008 models valued at $1.6 million each).
Rothstein spent millions at Levinson, which opened a grand Las Olas Boulevard store in 2008. His purchases including the $100,000 engagement ring for Kim and a $4,000 Florida Marlins watch he purchased without even seeing it after Robin Levinson, one of the owners, recommended it to him. … It’s important to note that Scott and Kim’s checks frequently bounced and the credit cards were often declined. Levinson had to dun Rothstein to make good on his purchases --- at one point in 2007 she was chasing him with $500,000 in late payments…
Attorney and former boss Gary D. Phillips: “Scott was a master at getting close to people and getting them to trust him. If he had used his force for good instead of evil, he could have been Luke Skywalker instead of Darth Vader. He just wasn’t willing to put forth the work.”
Excerpts from "The Ultimate Ponzi" by Chuck Malkus, © Chuck Malkus, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.