By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The main offices of the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm, on the 16th floor of the Bank of America building on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, might have looked almost normal. There, a whopping 70 lawyers and a team of support staff worked on an array of court cases.
But inside founding partner Scott Rothstein's so-called inner sanctum, past the keycard entry point that only a few employees could access, Rothstein cooked up his schemes to dupe well-heeled investors out of their millions. He burrowed into his office while his secretaries and right-hand woman, Chief Operating Officer Debra Villegas, worked in the "administrative corridor" that connected Rothstein's office to the main floor of the law firm.
It's clear from a string of emails Rothstein sent to staff before his dramatic billion-dollar implosion that he became increasingly isolated from his lawyers — former judges, prosecutors, and specialists whom he routinely called his "kids" — as the Ponzi scheme he was running became too large for him to contain.
He monitored the law firm from inside his opulent office via an "eye in the sky" — a black bubble on the ceiling containing a camera that videotaped the floor. But still, it wasn't enough; Rothstein needed more seclusion.
Reading his emails, you can feel the walls closing in on Rothstein even as he kept his high-rolling image alive with photo-ops with friends like Gov. Charlie Crist and Dan Marino and continued to expand his empire with bold moves, like the purchase of a stake in Casa Casuarina, the oceanfront Miami mansion formerly owned by late fashion designer Gianni Versace.
On April 27, Rothstein sent out a staff-wide email that began, like most of his correspondence with employees, with "Hey kids" and included "administrative corridor" as the subject line. It effectively told his lawyers to stay out of the inner sanctum. This order that would be known throughout the firm as "lockdown."
"Lets not make this simple thing difficult.....PLEASE :-)," he wrote. "We are trying desperately to be productive on behalf of the entire firm... just as all of you are. Interruptions slow us down. And often, interruptions that occur when we are in with clients or others are embarrassing to us. As for me, it makes me look like I have no control over my ability to have an uninterrupted meeting... which does not bode well for any of us.
"Please work with us on this. I know it can be a pain in the ass... but ultimately it will help all of us. Candidly, picking up the phone and dialing one of us on the intercom is really not a heavy duty chore... try it... you'll like it."
Like most staff emails, he signed it "Love ya."
Apparently, though, people didn't listen. On August 25, about two months before he fled the country for Morocco as his Ponzi scheme began collapsing, he sent another email to his staff, this one beginning "Hey Kidzzz."
"With the continued rapid growth of our firm it has become more imperative than ever that our management team be given the time and space to accomplish all that they must accomplish during the day," he began. "Despite the fact that we are on 'lock down,' the traffic in this corridor is unbearable. Thus, unless it is a true emergency, NO ONE is to attempt to enter the admin corridor to see Debra, Amy or Ingrid. PLEASE."
As he bunkered himself in, it's obvious from his emails that his partners and associates were becoming restless under the eye of Villegas, who doesn't have a law degree and was seen largely as a glorified secretary.
In March, he wrote an email complaining that "multiple recent incidents" were forcing him to define Villegas' role. And he didn't mince words.
"[W]hen she speaks she is speaking for me," he wrote. "Thus, absent extraordinary circumstances, no one is to challenge her authority or come to me to attempt to override any decision she makes... Please NEVER tell Debra, or anyone behind Debra's back, that you are going to just 'take it to Scott.' That defeats the purpose of having a COO that I have trusted for nearly 2 decades..."
Then he went into all-caps mode:
"WE WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT HER — SHE HAS HELPED ME AND CONTINUES TO HELP ME MORE THAN I COULD EVER EXPLAIN... OUR OFFICES THAT WE CURRENTLY OCCUPY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED WITHOUT HER... OUR GROWTH WOULD BE IN REVERSE."
It's obvious that the two of them were tied at the hip and that it was Villegas rather than, say, law partner Stuart Rosenfeldt with whom he strategized and commiserated.
In some of the emails, Rothstein actually hints at the disaster to come. He hints that he is breaking down emotionally and intimates that he may be about to implode. On May 1, he writes of two secretaries taking on "psychotic positions" as director of business relations and his personal assistant. He begins it "Good morning kidzzzzzz" and refers to the firm's "never ending changing wacky world."
"[An employee named Marybeth] is going to make a valiant (defined insane) attempt to organize and control my personal life so that I can attempt to have a semi-organized and semi-controlled business life....heheheheheehe....... please join me in wishing her the best of luck as she tries to keep me from imploding..... she will be working both in and out of the office," he wrote.
On October 16, Rothstein sent an email to staff that clearly displayed the chaotic state of his mind, his life, and the firm. In some parts of it, it's seems he's almost trying to reassure himself that everything will be OK. Here are the final paragraphs:
"Some things will go perfectly... others will look like a typhoon came through. BUT...... we are a team and we will all get through everything together, and at the end of the task everything will be nearly perfect. Always has been... always will be. But I will NEVER tolerate insubordination. I will NEVER tolerate attacks. NEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
"Being part of a team means dealing as a family with the good the bad and the ugly. ALL OF IT>>>>>TOGETHER>>>>>NEVER DEMEANING ANOTHER>>>>>>>NEVER BLAMING ANOTHER.
"WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
"IF YOU CAN'T DEAL WITH THIS THEORY PLEASE DO ME A FAVOR AND RESIGN IMMEDIATELY. MAKE IT EASY FOR ME.
"AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST.......... AND THIS IS TO ALL OF YOU..... YOUR JOB IS TO PRACTICE LAW AND BRING IN MONEY TO THE FIRM OR TO ASSIST THE FIRM IN DOING SAME.
"I AM THE CHAIRMAN.... THE CEO..... THE MANAGING SHAREHOLDER.... AND THE HEAD JANITOR.
"DEBRA IS THE COO....... SHE IS SECOND IN COMMAND. MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT. SHE IS... AND SHE ONLY ANSWERS TO ME. NO ONE ELSE. .END OF STORY.
"DO NOT CROSS THE LINE. IF YOU ARE NOT IN MANAGEMENT MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO MANAGE....... PLEASE.
"I AM SO ANGRY THAT I AM HAVING TO WRITE THIS EMAIL.
"WE HAVE AN AMAZING FIRM..... AN AMAZING WORKPLACE...... STOP PISSING ME OFF. IT WILL NOT GET YOU ANYWHERE THAT YOU WANT TO BE. PLEASE.
Eleven days later, as investors clamored for money and federal authorities were tipped off about his Ponzi scheme, Rothstein jumped on a jet and fled to Morocco. He had imploded, and his law firm would soon be in court receivership. His "kids" would be left hoping to survive the implosion.