- Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wooing politicians like Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. John McCain was a key to the success of his $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme, convicted fraudster Scott Rothstein told a jury Wednesday in federal court.
Testifying for more than eight hours in a trial of Boca Raton attorney Christina Kitterman, a former low-level associate charged with wire fraud, Rothstein described how he used his wallet to curry favor with politicians, lawyers, bank presidents and cops to create the aura of respectability he needed to fuel the scheme.
Politicians were particularly beneficial, he said. “The general perception of the public, despite what they think about some politicians, is that politicians are upstanding, good people,” he testified. “So, the perception is when they see you with them is that you must be an upstanding person.”
“The closer to you are to them,” he continued, “the more you became like them in the public eye. The more power you wield.”
By his own account, Rothstein got close to politicians the same way he wormed his way into favor with others, including mobsters: He showered them with money.
Before his law firm imploded in October 2009 and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison, he said he was able to dial up McCain. Such access came from hosting fund-raisers at his palatial Fort Lauderdale home for the Arizona Republican’s 2008 presidential bid. He became one of McCain’s biggest contributors nationwide — largely, he testified, because he broke campaign finance laws by bankrolling contributions that were sent by others.
“Quid pro quo,” was how Rothstein described his relationship with Crist. He did favors for the then Republican governor, who has since switched parties and is seeking his old job back as a Democat. In return, Crist did favors for him, he said. His words were compounded when a photo of him hugging Crist was beamed on a screen for jurors to see.
As an example of how he and Crist worked together, he pointed to his work on the Judicial Nominating Commission for the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal. After Crist appointed him, he said he would regularly consult the governor on which of the applicants should get the nod. When the search committee selected finalists, Rothstein said he made sure those Crist wanted were on the list.
Further, he said, he talked to Crist about who the governor should appoint to vacancies on the Broward County bench. He urged Crist to appoint those he believed would make favorable rulings for his law firm once they donned their judicial robes.
A spokesman for Crist said the former governor wasn’t available for comment. But a Crist supporter, former State Sen. Dan Gelber, blasted Rothstein’s claims as the ravings of a pathological liar who will say anything to get attention.
“It’s impossible to believe anything he says,” said Gelber, an attorney who represented a woman Rothstein fingered for a crime who was ultimately not charged with wrongdoing. “He’s the Hannibal Lecter of liars. He’s fooled charities, professional athletes and countless others. Nobody’s going to believe him.”
That’s exactly why attorney Val Rodriguez called Rothstein to testify in the trial of his client, Kitterman. During opening statements Monday, Rodriguez told jurors they would see Rothstein’s deceit and realize the claims the prosecution is making against Kitterman are groundless.
Federal prosecutors claim Kitterman, 39, impersonated a Florida Bar lawyer to keep Rothstein’s flagging Ponzi scheme alive.
Rothstein testified that Kitterman, like most of the 70 lawyers he employed, didn’t know about the fraud. But he said she was among those who committed illegal acts that helped him immeasurably.
He said he told her he needed her to pose as Adria Quintela, the chief of lawyer discipline at the Bar’s Fort Lauderdale office, to explain to nervous investors why they weren’t getting paid. He wrote a script for her to read, explaining his accounts had been frozen due to a Bar investigation. “Nobody reading that document could believe that was proper or legal behavior,” he said.
Kitterman wasn’t the only person in the now defunct law firm who posed as people they weren’t, Rothstein testified. Others helped him fool investors, even if they didn’t know exactly why.
“There were certain people within the law firm that I trust implicitly,” he testified. “I knew if I asked them to do anything unethical or illegal they would do it. It’s wasn’t just (a paralegal) or Ms. Kitterman. They were just two in a group.”
Those who knew about the scheme, like his former chief operating officer, were given huge salaries and wildly expensive cars. While Kitterman earned a relatively low salary of $140,000, she enjoyed other perks, he said. She was a regular at his skybox on the 50-yard line at Dolphins games; snapped up tickets to Miami Heat games, concerts and other entertainment events; and was a guest at his political and charity fund-raisers. Further, when she got in trouble with clients, he said he was more than willing to phony up documents to make her problems go away.
“We took care of each other even if it meant stepping into the bounds of illegal activity,” he said.
Unlike most other prisoners who testify in court, Rothstein wasn’t wearing a prison jumpsuit. Instead, he wore a blue polo shirt and jeans, but his arms were shackled.
And even though he has shed 70 pounds from his 230-pound pre-prison frame, he has lost none of the swagger that catapulted him to celebrity status in Fort Lauderdale. He bragged how he returned from Morocco where he fled after the firm collapsed, even though the U.S. doesn’t have an extradiction treaty with the African nation.
He said he came back, admitted his wrongdoing and helped the government recover roughly $350 million from what he described as “innocent victims.” He said he also gave up others who were involved, including his wife, who received an 18-month sentence for taking his advice and hiding watches and other jewelry from federal prosecutors. Some eight others have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. Rothstein’s testimony has been used to convict roughly seven others in connection with other illegal activity.
He said more people, including his former partners, were involved in the scheme. Neither has been charged. “I’m sorry all of this happened to all of these people but they need to take responsibility for what they did,” he said. “They need to accept the punishment and move on with their lives.”
He readily admitted that he is hoping prosecutors reward him for cooperating by recommending his sentence be reduced. “I’m hoping when they measure all of my good conduct … they’ll give me a cut,” he said.