Ahnich Khalid's eyes misted over, and the tears started falling.
"Why me?" he asked with choked emotion. "I keep asking that question. Why me? I am a little guy; I work all the time; I have a wife, two kids, a mortgage on a small townhouse. How did this happen to me?"
The answer is simple: Scott Rothstein happened to him.
When Rothstein made his strange trip to Morocco as his Ponzi scheme was falling apart, it was Khalid whom he used as his entree to Casablanca. Khalid flew to Morocco with Rothstein and Rothstein's uncle, Bill Boockvor, on October 27 and spent six days serving basically as a guide for Rothstein in Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh before the Ponzi schemer's dramatic return November 2.
Khalid, a U.S. citizen and Boca Raton resident who has lived in America for 24 years, told me during an hourlong interview at JB's in Deerfield Beach that until the last night there he believed Rothstein was what he claimed to be: A very wealthy and powerful man with friends in high places looking to invest large sums of money into Morocco.
He said that during the Moroccan trip, Rothstein unexpectedly transferred $16 million into Khalid's account at Banque Populaire in Casablanca. In the recent information filed by federal officials charging Rothstein with racketeering and other charges, prosecutors wrote that "up to the amount of $2 million" was still held in Khalid's account. Khalid, however, says that is not so. He said that he immediately transferred the entire $16 million over to Rothstein's newly formed Moroccan account and that he has none of it. He said he spoke with the feds upon his return to the States and gave them the bank transfer information.
"I will write you a check for $2 million, and if you can cash it and get the money, please
do," Khalid said. "I wouldn't want it anyway. I just want my life to return to normal."
Khalid says his international whirlwind with Rothstein began October 20 when a Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler attorney whom he knew from his work in the restaurant business told him that her boss was looking to invest in Morocco. He said that the attorney, whom he wouldn't name because he felt that she was also an innocent victim of Rothstein's, told him that Rothstein had sent an email out to all attorneys telling them that he was interested in investing in Morroco, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.
Khalid, a professional and personable man who was dressed in his work attire of a neatly pressed shirt and tie, said that the attorney knew he was from Morocco and that he had an interest in fostering ties between his two countries. In fact, just a few weeks before, he had been in Washington, D.C., at the Moroccan Embassy for a meeting of the Moroccan American Coalition, of which he is a member. That D.C. meeting focused on bringing American investments to Morocco.
"She told me that she had worked for him for three years and that he was involved in several businesses and that he has a lot of money and he might want to go with me to Morocco," said Khalid. "I said that I had five weeks of vacation available and I might be able to take a week off for it."
Five days later, on Sunday, October 25, he met Rothstein and the other attorney at Rothstein's office in the Bank of America building. "It was a beautiful office," he recalled. "And all the pictures. George Bush, Jeb Bush, Cosby, Schwarzenegger, McCain, you name it. I was impressed with all the pictures and the office."
At that point, Khalid choked up, one of four times he wept during the interview.
"How did this happen?" he said. "I have never had a speeding ticket during my life."
Khalid haltingly continued the story.
"Rothstein told me, 'I want to invest my money overseas. I read a book about Morocco, and it's a good country, and Morocco treats Jewish people very well. And he asked me if I could help him. I said, 'Absolutely, I can make calls for you. I can arrange a meeting with the mayor of Casablanca. I can show you around.'"
Unbeknown to Khalid, just a couple of days before that meeting, Rothstein had missed his first payment to investors, and some were already clamoring for the money he'd stolen. Rothstein was already lying low.
"To me, I was taking an investor to Morocco, not a thief," Khalid told me.
It was decided that Khalid would accompany Rothstein to Casablanca the following Tuesday night, October 27. The next day, Monday, Rothstein called Khalid and asked him if he could open a bank account in Morocco for him. Khalid called the bank and learned that an account couldn't be opened on the phone; it had to be in person, and the person opening the account had to have his valid American passport in hand.
He said Rothstein told him that he was going to transfer $40,000 to $50,000 to his account at Banque Populaire and that when they set up Rothstein's account, they would just transfer the money over. Khalid said he never even talked to Rothstein about any compensation for himself -- and wound up never getting the chance.
He said that he and the man introduced to him as "Uncle Bill" both arrived at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport for the flight on the chartered Gulfstream 5 jet before Rothstein got there. He said he sat in the jet chatting with Uncle Bill, who was a very nice person. He said he didn't see Rothstein until he walked onto the plane and missed his arrival with Broward Sheriff's Lt. David Benjamin.
The jet was nice but small, he said. There were two pilots and a flight attendant. They ate (he said he had a chicken dish and a Diet Coke) and chatted before sleeping most of the flight. He said that there were some drinks and that Rothstein, during the entire trip, "liked his Grey Goose" (which is ironic since Rothstein co-owned a vodka company, V Georgio, that was supposed to supplant Grey Goose as the top premium vodka in the world because it was supposedly cleaner and purer). But he said Rothstein was nothing but a consummate gentleman the entire trip. "He was the sweetest man," Khalid said. "He was the most polite and courteous man I met in my whole life."
They touched down in Casablanca at 9 a.m. Wednesday and checked into the Hyatt Regency Hotel there, all three of them staying in suites on the same floor (Rothstein footed the bill for Khalid's room, of course). Rothstein wanted to relax before doing anything and called him about 1:30 p.m. to go to the bank.
Once at the bank, Khalid introduced Rothstein to the manager, and they opened Rothstein's account. The money Rothstein said he was wiring from the U.S. hadn't arrived in Khalid's account yet, and they decided to return to the bank two days later, on Friday.
They went out to eat that night, and the following day, Thursday, Khalid showed him Casablanca. "The only thing he was interested in was business," said Khalid. "We talked about how he could open businesses in Morocco. He said he wanted to open hotels, restaurants, and schools. He wanted to open an American school to teach people about the U.S. He would stand on street corners and say, 'I'll put the hotel there and the restaurant there.' He had many plans."
Khalid said he got an idea just how big those plans were the next morning at the bank. He said that when they returned to the bank on Friday, the manager said, "Ahnich, there's a big amount of money in your account."
"Yes, he said he was putting $40,000 to $50,000 there," Khalid says he replied.
"No, it's $16 million."
"I said to him, 'Are you fucking kidding me?', pardon the expression."
Rothstein explained it to him, saying that the $16 million was the first installment of $100 million to $200 million he intended to transfer to the bank.
"I immediately transferred everything from my account to [Rothstein's] account, every penny," said Khalid. "And that's what I told the feds."
He held his hands up.
"That is all; I didn't get one penny," he said, symbolically wiping his hands clean.
That night, not surprisingly, the bank manager himself took them to dinner. Here was a man, Rothstein, who was going to be a huge customer, after all. "This was big-time business," Khalid said. "He's a lawyer, and he's got 20 other businesses, a vodka company, everything. The manager told him, 'Welcome to Morocco -- whatever we can do for you we will do.'"
The next day, they traveled to Marrakesh and got rooms at the Palmeraie Hotel. They were aware that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in town on that same day. It was Saturday, and Khalid said Rothstein had spoken of attending the opening of the Kerzner Mazagan Beach Resort that night in El Jadida, Morocco.
"We were going to go there because he said the vice president of the hotel company was his best friend," Khalid said. "But he said he didn't have an invitation, and that's why we didn't go."
They stayed in Marrakesh Saturday and Sunday nights, and Khalid said, again, it was all business. Rothstein would stand on street corners and envision a hotel or restaurant or school, even getting into square footage.
Looking back, Khalid said there was one thing he still can't understand, considering the fact that as they talked business and lounged at the hotels, Rothstein's entire life was unraveling back in the States.
On that Sunday, I broke the story about the implosion of Rothstein's Ponzi scheme here, and investors had a meeting to discuss the disaster. During the trip, Rothstein sent text messages to partners discussing suicide and telling friends who were losing fortunes that almost everything was lost.
Yet, "he was in a good mood the entire time," Khalid says with a bewildered tone. "He was always happy. He spent a lot of time at the hotel, and he loved the fact that in Morocco, he could smoke his cigars in the hotels and the restaurants whenever he wanted. He said, 'This is a nice place. I'm going to be going between the States and Morocco, back and forth.'"
Monday, they returned to Casablanca. And that's when Rothstein said he'd decided to go back to the States on Tuesday morning. Khalid reminded him that he had set up a meeting with the mayor of Casablanca on Tuesday and then another meeting with the mayor of Rabbat on Wednesday. Rothstein told him to cancel the meetings.
That evening in his hotel, Khalid says he received a call on his cell phone from the RRA attorney who arranged his meeting with Rothstein. She was crying.
"She said, 'I'm so sorry, but shit happened. He's in trouble; he's in so much trouble. He stole the money. There are a lot of victims. You can't go back with him. I want you to be safe. I put you in this situation, and I'm so sorry.'"
Khalid said he became so distraught at the phone call that he became physically ill and spent seven hours in the bathroom that night. The next morning, he took Rothstein and Boockvor to the airport and dropped them off, not telling them that he knew of the huge trouble awaiting him in America. Rothstein, he said, was as buoyant as ever, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and seemingly happy as could be. Boockvor too seemed like nothing more than a great guy the entire trip, quiet but exceedingly friendly.
"When I dropped him off at the airport, he hugged me and said, 'I'll see you in the States; I'll take care of you,'" recalled Khalid with a look of disbelief.
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Khalid visited with family that day and flew back on a commercial flight the next day. Shortly after returning, he spoke with the feds and gave them the banking records. He said that during a short interview, the agents were kind and understanding to him and realized that he was just another of Rothstein's victims. He said the RRA attorney also vouched for him and told them that she had gotten him into the mess. "She stood up for me," he said. "She went to the feds, and she told my whole story."
But even now, when he says he's certain that he did nothing wrong and can be in no trouble, he is hit with waves of emotion. The event has clearly traumatized him, and he says questions keep running through his mind. "I wonder why was I so naive," he told me. "But was I naive or just stupid? Am I the victim, or did I just help somebody that wasn't good. My wife..."
He breaks down into tears again.
"Why us? I try to help somebody, and look at what happens to me."