South Florida has seen plenty of con artists, and America plenty of Ponzi schemes, but there's something about the Scott Rothstein saga still stunning after all these years. Rothstein took the stand last week in the trial of a former law firm underling, and his two-day turn had it all: Greed, power, sex, corruption, politicians, judges, lawyers, cops, hookers, the Mafia.
"Someone said to me it's like Ally McBeal, The Firm, The Sopranos and The Godfather all rolled into one," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bill Scherer, who represents defrauded investors.
Chuck Malkus, a Fort Lauderdale public relations executive who wrote a book on Rothstein ("Ultimate Ponzi"), said: "His testimony was 60 percent riveting, 30 percent entertaining and 10 percent nauseating."
In other words, vintage Scott.
"The reason this has legs is because it was so unprecedented, so all-encompassing," Scherer said.
And because many of the people whom Rothstein said were complicit remain unindicted, more than four years after his scheme's October 2009 implosion.
Jurors heard Rothstein talk about hobnobbing with then-Gov. Charlie Crist and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain. They heard him brag about having crooked cops under his control, and how he could order the arrest of a friend's ex-wife on bogus charges. They heard him talk about his influence on Crist and the local judiciary, how he could get judges appointed who would be favorable to his law firm.
"It's like going back to the days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall," Scherer said, referring to New York's corrupt 19th century political machine.
I'm fascinated by Rothstein. Somehow the guy manages to be both repulsive and charming, manipulative and vulnerable, crafty and dumb. He told jurors how one Ponzi associate called him "Robin Hood from the Bronx" — or Hood for short — because, "I'd steal from the rich and give to the richer."
Rothstein has been cooperating with the feds ever since he came back from Morocco in 2009, yet prosecutors didn't call him. He was a defense witness who slimed defendant Christina Kitterman, charged with wire fraud for allegedly impersonating a Florida Bar official on a conference call with nervous investors. Apparently, her lawyers are hoping that jurors find him so repugnant and self-serving that they'll let her skate.
I have no idea what this nearly all-female jury (12 of 14, including alternates) will make of Rothstein. All I know is there's a lot riding on the outcome of this case. If Kitterman is acquitted, that could spook prosecutors from going after bigger fish on other charges. If she's convicted, it could mean a flurry of indictments before the statute of limitations expires in November.
Rothstein's first courtroom appearance left me grappling with two big questions: Can an inveterate liar have credibility with a jury? And is it possible for a sociopath to have a conscience?
Scherer found him credible, saying most of what Rothstein said is consistent with the truth as Scherer knows it (and Scherer knows a lot). Malkus said he found Rothstein "90 percent credible, five percent vindictive and five percent Scott not being able to shut up."
Rothstein now tries to portray himself as a beacon of morality, saying he's taken responsibility and a 50-year sentence for his crimes, and that others need to 'fess up and take their punishment, too. He could have stayed in Morocco, but didn't. He has helped "innocent investors" recover nearly all their losses with his cooperation.
That's true, but he also admits to engineering one last lie and cover-up, directing his wife Kim to hide some expensive watches while he pledged cooperation and honesty with the feds. He then apparently sent Kim coded letters from prison telling her the gig was up and to give the jewelry back. And then he informed on her, what he called the hardest decision of his life.
"When I was involved in the Ponzi scheme I was a master of deception," Rothstein told jurors. "And now that I've become a cooperator with the government and am trying to do the right thing, people say I'm a rat and I can't be believed. I can't win."
Poor Hood. When you've pulled off the biggest scam in a region's history, violating trust and shaking faith in key institutions along the way, losing is the only option.
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