A once high-flying attorney who courted politicians and celebrities was arrested Tuesday on federal racketeering and fraud charges alleging he operated a $1 billion investment scheme involving phony legal settlements.
Lawyer Scott Rothstein was led into the Miami FBI office in handcuffs following his early morning arrest on five charges, including a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO law, often used against the Mafia and other criminal organizations.
Rothstein was also charged with wire fraud, money laundering, and mail and wire fraud conspiracy. The combined maximum prison term for convictions on all counts is 100 years, according to court documents.
"This case is a glaring example of greed run amok," acting Miami U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman said. "He sought to buy power and influence at the expense of his clients, and instead has potentially bought himself a lengthy prison sentence."
A few hours after his arrest, Rothstein pleaded not guilty in federal court even though the information charging document _ rather than an indictment _ used by prosecutors typically means a defendant has agreed to eventually plead guilty.
"There is no deal at this point in time," said Rothstein attorney Marc Nurik.
Nurik added that Rothstein _ shackled and wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans in court _ intends to repay as many investors as possible. "At the end of the day, the people who deserve to get money back hopefully will," Nurik said.
Rothstein was ordered held without bail by U.S. Magistrate Robin Rosenbaum, who noted that Rothstein had wired some $16 million to a bank account in Morocco and flew on a chartered jet there in late October before returning to Florida. Rothstein carried up to $500,000 in cash on that trip, she said citing evidence from prosecutors.
"At least at some point, Mr. Rothstein intended to flee," Rosenbaum said.
The charging document cites unnamed "other conspirators" who also played key roles in the fraud, suggesting that more people could face charges. The document also said Rothstein paid "gratuities" to unidentified police officials "to deflect law enforcement scrutiny" of his activities.
John Gillies, chief of the FBI's Miami office, said the investigation is "far from over."
"We will continue to unravel the weave of schemes and dismantle the house of cards he has built," Gillies said.
The criminal case was seen as inevitable after Rothstein returned from Morocco early last month amid mounting questions from investors and the FBI about missing money.
Federal agents have seized Rothstein's boats, including an 87-foot yacht, as well as 20 luxury cars and numerous other assets, including his share of the Miami Beach mansion formerly owned by fashion designer Gianni Versace. Prosecutors are also going after 24 homes and other properties linked to Rothstein in Florida, New York and along Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay.
Meanwhile, the once fast-growing law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler is defunct and Rothstein has been disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court. Several investors have already filed lawsuits seeking their money back, including one case demanding more than $100 million in damages.
Rothstein promised huge returns on investments in legal settlements he said would pay out over time. Prosecutors say most of the settlements never existed and that Rothstein operated a Ponzi scheme, using money from new investors to pay older ones.
Shortly after the scandal broke, the Florida Democratic Party returned $200,000 in contributions from Rothstein and his law firm. The state Republican Party gave back $150,000, and Gov. Charlie Crist returned $9,600 that Rothstein and his wife, Kim, had donated to Crist's campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Rothstein's office is filled with photos of him with politicians from around the country, including former President George W. Bush, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Arizona Sen. John McCain and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was also close to Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino and many South Florida business and community leaders.