Debra Villegas has long presented herself as woman with dual lives: A terrified wife with an abusive husband at home, anda "cold-hearted bitch"
in her day job as chief operating officer at the 70-person Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm.
But in her recent testimony in federal court -- where she pleaded guilty to aiding in Rothstein's Ponzi scheme-- she also asked the judge to believe that she had dual roles at work. One was powerful and all-knowing, the other innocent and ignorant.
In the first role, she was Rothstein's right-hand woman, the gatekeeper to his "inner
sanctum," earning $250,000 to run daily operations, and according to Rothstein, handle much of his financial affairs.
"I negotiated contracts, dealt with vendors, dealt with lease agreements, hired and fired personnel, clerical," Villegas testified. "I also terminated attorneys. I just dealt with the daily operations of the firm and dealt with staff issues, technical issues, IT issues, brought the firm paperless."
Villegas, who never earned a college degree, was intelligent enough to prepare fake lawsuit settlement agreements to be used as part of the Ponzi scheme.Yet, she says she was also ignorant.She thought Rothstein was laundering money for the Mafia, not stealing money from investors. As she told U.S. District Judge William Zloch:
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I believed that he was receiving money from a particular -- it was termed an investor, but a Mafia person. But I did not know -- I did not see them as -- him as an investor. I saw him as somebody who was giving money to Mr. Rothstein, creating these documents to aid in the event there was an audit to look like there was a reason for this money to be coming and going out of the bank accounts. I did not understand it to be what ultimately it was.
For a woman in charge of daily operations at the firm, she was curiously clueless. Even stranger, Villegas says she was excluded from pertinent meetings about the scam:
I didn't understand this to be an investment scheme. I understood this to be a money-laundering scheme I guess you would call it. So I never met an investor. I never sat in on a meeting. I never talked with anybody. I never spoke to the bank. I prepared these documents, and I signed names to these documents. And I didn't ask questions because it being the Mafia, I really didn't want to know any more than I already knew.
Yet she was the gatekeeper to his office. Anyone who wanted to see Rothstein had to get past her. To remain blind for more than a year, did she simply close her eyes?