This morning, Debra Villegas, the law firm employee who allegedly helped disgraced lawyer Scott Rothstein run his $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme, pled not guilty to a charge of money laundering in federal court in Fort Lauderdale -- a move that observers say was just a formality. Villegas's next court appearance is scheduled for May 13. Her lawyer confirmed that she has been cooperating with authorities since the beginning of the investigation into Rothstein's crimes. Villegas faces a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. She is expected to negotiate a plea deal.
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Villegas sat quietly in the courtroom while her lawyer spoke for her. Attorney Robert Stickney asked the the judge to let Villegas remain free while she is cooperating. The judge agreed but made Villegas surrender her passport. There was also talk of Villegas being in poor health and suffering from fainting spells. Outside the courtroom, Stickney explained to reporters that by being free until sentencing, Villegas could work and take care of her family members -- he said she has three teenage children, and she also has a grown daughter -- and is staying in Clewiston. Stickney also implored reporters to "be nice to her, because of any stress."
Stickney also mentioned that Villegas, 42, is remarried. Marriage records indicate she married 39-year-old Daniel Coffey in Pembroke Pines on December 17. Her ex-husband, Tony Villegas, is currently in jail awaiting trial for the murder of Melissa Britt Lewis, a young attorney at Rothstein's firm and also Debra's best friend. When Lewis was killed in 2008, police arrested Tony, citing jealousy as his motive. But outsiders suspicious of the case have wondered whether the truth is more sinister, theorizing that Lewis had learned of the Ponzi scheme and was murdered before she could report the fraud. For more on the murder and Debra's friendship with Lewis, read this week's feature story.
In a press release, John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Miami Division, said, "We sometimes must make tough choices in our lives, and in this case Debra Villegas made the wrong choice. She could have done the right thing and reported Rothstein's fraud to law enforcement, but instead she assisted him in carrying out the scheme.She chose greed over her integrity and now she will have to pay the price for her actions."