Christina Kitterman ¿ a lawyer who worked at the notorious Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm until Rothstein's $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme blew up in his face ¿ was just one of the lower-level people he fooled, her attorney told jurors.

Saying it's a true story that outshines most Hollywood movie scripts, the trial of one of Scott Rothstein's former employees began Monday with her defense asking jurors to remember that Rothstein is a master deceiver who conned everyone from powerful politicians down to his almost powerless staff.

Christina Kitterman — a lawyer who worked at the notorious Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm until Rothstein's $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme blew up in his face — was just one of the lower-level people he fooled, her attorney told jurors.

"He deceived then-Gov. Charlie Crist … he deceived presidential hopeful at the time U.S. Sen. John McCain," defense attorney Valentin Rodriguez Jr. told jurors in opening statements in Kitterman's federal trial on three wire fraud charges.

On and on went the defense's list of people taken in by Rothstein's lies: Police officers he hired; political parties, politicians and charities he courted and donated to; bank officials; the 70 lawyers who worked for him; his own friends; even his wife, Kim Rothstein, who is now in prison, too.


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"The [Rothstein] deception was at a level that is unimaginable," Rodriguez told the 14-member jury panel.

Federal prosecutors say that, at Rothstein's urging, Kitterman pretended she was Adria Quintela, then head of the Florida Bar's Fort Lauderdale office, on an April 2009 conference call to deceive his investors and hedge fund representatives who were lending money to his investors.

"As a result, the Ponzi scheme continued when it probably would have collapsed," prosecutor Lawrence LaVecchio told the jury, explaining that the massive fraud survived for another six months.

Kitterman is one of many people Rothstein accused of committing crimes after he was arrested and began cooperating with prosecutors. He is serving 50 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to masterminding the biggest investment fraud in Florida history.

In opening statements, the defense made a point of emphasizing that Rothstein was so eager to save his own skin that he initially told prosecutors that another female employee at his Las Olas Boulevard law firm had posed as Quintela. He later said he was mistaken and it was actually Kitterman.

"[Rothstein is] so reckless he can't even remember who he had do it," Kitterman's lawyer told the jury of 12 women and two men.

Though Kitterman was earning $140,000 a year by the time Rothstein was arrested in the fall of 2009, she received none of the perks Rothstein and his buddies enjoyed and she wasn't living the party lifestyle that Rothstein reveled in — driving around in his Bugatti and blowing about $1 million a month, Rodriguez said.

Though much of the case against Kitterman came from Rothstein's statements to federal authorities, prosecutors are not calling him to testify against her.

Instead, the prosecution is relying heavily on Debra Villegas, Rothstein's former right-hand woman at the law firm and Kitterman's friend, who is serving 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to a related money-laundering conspiracy.

Also on the prosecution's witness list are the hedge fund representatives who were on the conference call, Quintela, and FBI and IRS agents who worked on the investigation.

Prosecutors also read aloud in court from emails that went back and forth between Rothstein and Kitterman on the day of the phone call and told jurors that Kitterman admitted to them, during a 2012 debriefing, that she had made the call, though even the prosecutors don't suggest she knew about the Ponzi scheme.

Kitterman is arguing that she acted innocently and merely obeyed her boss's request, without realizing the impact of what she was doing.

Rothstein was subpoenaed and will testify on the defense's side of the case, probably later this week, according to the defense. The trial is expected to take less than two weeks.

Villegas, who was shackled and wore dark blue jail scrubs over a gray sweat shirt with her long blonde hair hanging down over her shoulders, hobbled to the witness stand late Monday with the characteristic gait of prisoners trying not to trip on their shackles.

She testified for less than an hour and is expected to continue her testimony Tuesday morning.

Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley spent some time Monday explaining to jurors that they should scrutinize the testimony of the witnesses who have made plea deals with the government – Rothstein and Villegas — and view it with "more caution" than other witnesses' words.

The reason is simple, the judge and the defense explained to the jury, Rothstein and Villegas are hoping that, if they cooperate and help prosecutors to convict others, prosecutors will recommend that they get time shaved off their prison terms. Such recommendations are regularly approved by judges who give anything from 10 percent to half off, depending on how helpful prosecutors say the cooperating defendants were.

Villegas told the jury, under questioning by prosecutor Paul Schwartz, that she hopes "very much so" that she will get time taken off her punishment in exchange for cooperating, but that no promises have been made and that prosecutors told her "it wouldn't behoove me to be anything other than truthful."

Villegas, who started working for Rothstein in the early 1990s and was his chief operating officer at the end, began her testimony Monday by telling jurors about how Rothstein's career arc took off.

"He went from living a modest life to buying anything he wanted whenever he wanted," Villegas told the jury. "He was bigger than life."

pmcmahon@tribune.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula