Joel Steinger is a shrewd operator who gained great sway over local politicians and the Florida Legislature while he perpetrated one of the greatest frauds in South Florida history.
His billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, Mutual Benefits Corp., was busted in 2004. This past December, the feds indicted him on fraud and money-laundering charges. But that hasn't kept Steinger from living like a king at his $9 million mansion on the New River in Fort Lauderdale.
And that has been made possible in part due to his success at a whole new game: divorce court.
When his wife, the mother of his 7-year-old son, sued him for divorce, Broward Circuit Judge Susan Greenhawt allowed the 59-year-old Steinger to keep full ownership of his lavish waterfront estate and let him off without having to pay alimony or child support.
Curiously, Greenhawt also sealed the felon's financial documents from public view, leading some to complain that she was actually protecting the criminal from scrutiny.
The contentious, expensive, and often ugly battle came after a six-year marriage. The couple had been regulars at exclusive charity balls, and they were known for throwing lavish parties attended by the political elite, notably Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter and former state Sen. Steve Geller.
Joel Steinger poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the political process, fostered a friendship with Geller, and hired Ritter's lobbyist husband, Russ Klenet — all moves that helped him continue operating his fraudulent company with the Legislature's nascent blessing.
Court documents show that while Steinger was ripping off Mutual Benefits investors, he was also accepting millions of dollars from Colombian drug cartels to fund the business and hiding illicit profits in bogus companies and offshore accounts.
The Securities and Exchange Commission shut down Mutual Benefits in 2004 and ultimately forced Steinger and his underlings (including his two brothers) to pay about $30 million in penalties. A government-sponsored receivership is now running what's left of Mutual Benefits and is going after any assets it can find that are connected to Steinger, including tens of millions he had invested in racehorses and an Ocala farm.
The only major known asset he has left is the Fort Lauderdale estate, which is protected from creditors. Not surprisingly, the mansion was the central issue in the divorce.
Diana Steinger, an attractive woman born to a wealthy family in Venezuela, originally filed for divorce in 2005 and also got a restraining order against her husband, alleging verbal and physical abuse. She sought child support and for the house to be put in a trust fund for their son, whose custody is split between his parents.
Both sides employed high-powered lawyers for the dispute, which continues today. Last April 8, Judge Greenhawt issued a final order allowing Joel Steinger to keep the estate. The judge gave Diana Steinger and their son just six days to move out of the 8,500-square-foot home with her possessions in tow.
Greenhawt, who was appointed judge by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003, declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing divorce. But the judge made it clear in the order how she felt about Diana Steinger.
"The husband thought he was getting a beautiful wife, but she turned out to be smoke and mirrors," Greenhawt wrote in her order. "The wife thought she was getting a wealthy husband, but the business collapsed."
Harsh words for a now-single mother, especially considering that Florida is a "no-fault divorce" state. But Greenhawt didn't even write the order; it was actually composed by Joel Steinger's attorney, prominent divorce lawyer Karen Amlong.
At the bottom of the document is a line of computer code indicating that Greenhawt's order originated from Amlong's computer. Amlong says she wrote the order at the judge's request, but she says it was consistent with Greenhawt's pronouncements in court. Amlong says Diana Steinger has several divorces in her past and was never interested in a long-term marriage.
"What is amazing is that the wife owes [the law firm] Baker & McKenzie over $1 million for representing her — all to walk away with her jewels and secondhand furniture and her designer clothes," says Amlong. "It was a short-term marriage."
The truth is that Diana Steinger, according to the order, wasn't allowed to take any furniture, only personal possessions that she owned before the 2000 wedding. Diana Steinger declined to comment, but a close friend said she was mischaracterized by Joel Steinger and his attorney in court.
At one point, said the friend, Amlong intimated that Diana Steinger was an exotic dancer, a laughable allegation since the only dancing she has done is ballet.
"She's a good mother and good person," said the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And she has gone through hell."
Backing up the friend's characterization is the fact that Diana Steinger is receiving a humanitarian award from the Florida Grand Opera for her volunteer work.
Amlong says the ruling was fair in part because Joel Steinger took on the brunt of the millions in debt he'd accumulated.
The judge, not surprisingly, echoed that sentiment. Greenhawt wrote in the order that forgiving Diana Steinger her husband's debt, which he'd acquired in a criminal enterprise, "resulted in a vastly disproportionate distribution in favor of the wife."
The judge didn't mention that the home, under the state's homestead laws, is protected from those judgments and creditors.
The comparison to Bernie Madoff, who is accused of masterminding a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, is unavoidable. While thousands of investors have lost their savings, Steinger is so far doing just fine. Today, Joel Steinger continues to live in his mansion. He's under house arrest but is free to towel off in his two-story pool house, lounge at his mahogany bar, and use any of the eight bathrooms in the giant abode.
And the victims don't think the house should belong to the husband, the wife, or the child — they think proceeds from its sale should go to them.
"It's sickening," says Larry Scartz, whose parents lost most of their nest egg in the Mutual Benefits scam and who has been assisting victims around the country. "I don't understand it. It makes no sense."
County records indicate Steinger isn't hurting for cash. There are still many millions of dollars unaccounted for in the Mutual Benefits fraud. It's unknown if Steinger has access to any of that, but county records show that just ten weeks after Greenhawt's final order was issued, he received a $602,000 loan from longtime friend and Miami attorney David Goldstein.
Listed as collateral for the loan is the Fort Lauderdale estate, which is still in dispute. The ex-wife is appealing the judge's ruling. Her current attorney, Barry Finkel, argued at a hearing before Greenhawt on January 9 that Diana Steinger deserves her portion of the home's equity.
There, Finkel argued that the house — or at least the $800,000 portion of the equity in it deemed a marital asset — should be shared with the ex-wife and argued that Greenhawt excused Joel Steinger "from paying child support because of his past and pending criminal conduct."
Amlong countered that the judge had no obligation to alter her ruling and that the house could be used by Steinger for bond in light of the indictment.
Greenhawt denied Finkel's request, prompting Diana Steinger to complain that her son's private school is threatening to expel him because Joel Steinger had failed for several months to pay his half of the tuition.
"Maybe you should take care of your child instead of your appeal, ma'am," Amlong sniped at the mother.
And with that, Diana Steinger left the hearing the way she'd arrived: empty-handed.