Rise of Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein has town talking

Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein is, quite literally, a high roller.

During the past couple of years, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer has owned a Hummer. And a couple of Bentleys. Maybe a Lamborghini or three. Ferraris, yes. A pair of Harleys, of course. Throw in the hum-drum BMWs, Mercedes, and Porsches and you're starting to get the picture.

Rothstein, a Republican powerhouse who has raised millions of dollars for his good friend Charlie Crist and his favorite presidential candidate John McCain, has owned a fleet of high-priced automobiles that he keeps in his air-conditioned warehouse. He's owned 21 high-priced models during the past three years that he has driven and bought and sold as a side business. But he says they were a "crappy investment," and he's now down to a paltry four automobiles — a Mercedes, a Rolls-Royce, an Escalade, and a Ferrari. A car for every occasion, you might say.

But the Ferrari seems to be more his speed. The lawyer is snapping up homes, restaurants, commercial real estate, and businesses in South Florida at a breakneck pace. And he's throwing millions of dollars around to his favorite charities and political campaigns, mostly of the GOP persuasion.

Rothstein's big-spending ways and race to the top of the Fort Lauderdale glitterati has legal and business insiders wondering: Who is this guy? Is he for real, or is he building a house of cards?

To try to help answer that question, I recently met Rothstein at his well-heeled law firm on the 16th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where he oversees a group of 58 attorneys that includes numerous former judges and prosecutors. His employees also include disgraced former Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne. Rothstein hired Jenne last week, shortly after the longtime politico served a federal prison sentence for a corruption conviction.

Rothstein met me in the lobby and led me back to his glass-walled office, which has sensational views of Las Olas Boulevard and the Atlantic Ocean. Along the walls and desk were numerous framed photographs of Rothstein with Crist, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Lieberman, Bill McCollum, Dan Marino, and others.

It's a "casual Friday" at his firm, so the 46-year-old, spiky-haired Rothstein isn't wearing one of his designer Italian suits. Instead, he's wearing a designer orange shirt, blue jeans, and orange cowboy boots. He's got a compact but slightly pudgy frame and a manic energy that lends him an air of unpredictability.

"This is where the evil happens," he jokes as he gets comfortable behind his desk.

And he wastes no time addressing the idea that he's rising too fast to last and spends more money than most people could dream about.

"Look, I sleep in the bed I make," he says. "I tend toward the flashy side, but it's a persona. It's just a fucking persona."

Rothstein comes across as friendly and funny, even gregarious, but he can turn on you in an instant. He tells me, for instance, that I had better get everything I write about him correct — or else. His voice gets a little more flavor of his native Bronx, something between bravado and bully. He says that, if I write something incorrect, he'll be living with me — an allusion to a lawsuit. The flare-up is over as quickly as it started, and soon he's treating me like an old friend, telling me about the stresses of being Scott Rothstein.

"People ask me, 'When do you sleep?' " he says. "I say I'll sleep when I'm dead. I'm a true Gemini. I joke around that there are 43 people living in my head and you never know what you're going to get."

How did he come to that number?

"I counted them one day," he said. "There are some philanthropists in there, some good lawyers, and I like to think some good businessmen. There are also some guys from the streets of the Bronx that stay hidden away until I need them. Does that sound crazy? I am crazy, but crazy in a good way."

If you look at Rothstein's recent dealings, it would seem to take 43 people to pull it off. Let's start with his law firm.

After working for nearly 15 years as a lawyer in Broward in relative anonymity, he started Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler P.A. in 2002 with a stable of seven other attorneys. In less than six years, he and his partners have grown the firm to 58 lawyers, including former Boca Raton Mayor Steve Abrams and former judges like Julio Gonzalez, Bill Berger, and Barry Stone.

But that's just his day job. He also invests in residential property. In 2003, he paid $1.2 million for a waterfront house on Castilla Isle in Fort Lauderdale. He liked the upscale street on the Intracoastal so much that, two years later, he bought a neighbor's house for another $2.73 million. The neighbor: Miami Dolphins star Ricky Williams.

While living in Williams' old house, he's purchased two other homes on the street and three other homes in Broward for a total residential investment of nearly $20 million. "They call me the king of Castilla," he joked.

Sharing the home with him is his pretty, blond second wife, Kimberly Wendell Rothstein, a 34-year-old real-estate agent who helps manage his properties, which also include part-ownership of an office building in Pompano Beach. To give you an idea about that flashy persona, consider that when they married on January 26, he rented out the Versace mansion on South Beach for three days. He threw a white party there that was attended by Crist and his fiancée, Carol Rome. Rumors abound that the wedding ran into the mid-six figures, although Rothstein won't say how much it cost.

He has also been snapping up area restaurants with partner Anthony Bova, a well-known Boca Raton restaurateur. In addition to two restaurants — Bova Ristorante and Mario's of Boca — the partnership recently bought Riley McDermott's steak house on Las Olas Boulevard; it will soon be called Bova Prime. He says he plans to dine there every day and hold court with local politicians, lawyers, and business associates.

Rothstein has myriad other business interests. He owns parts of an internet technology called company Qtask as well as V Georgio Vodka, and the Renato watch company (he has a personal collection of several hundred watches). He's working on opening a cigar and martini bar on Las Olas and two high-rise residential buildings in Brooklyn with New York partner Dominic Tonnachio. He says he's also about to close on a "series of office buildings" on Oakland Park Boulevard. He is pulling all of this off despite a credit crisis and one of the greatest economic downturns in history.

In addition to law and business, Rothstein is all over politics. Rothstein, his business partners, and his law firm have flooded national, state, and local campaigns with hundreds of thousands of dollars, including more than $200,000 to the Florida Republican Party during the past couple of years alone. He says he has raised more than $2 million for the Republican Party in the past year.

To bolster his political acumen, Rothstein recently partnered with operative Roger Stone, the famed dirty trickster who got his start working for Richard Nixon's campaigns. Stone quickly met with controversy for his role in an ad campaign targeting sheriff's candidate Scott Israel, who is challenging Republican Sheriff Al Lamberti, a Crist appointee supported by Rothstein. Though the committee that conducted the campaign was funded by his partner Bova, Rothstein says he had nothing to do with the attack on Israel.

Rothstein says he considers Crist to be one of his "closest friends" and has had Republican presidential nominee John McCain over to his home for fundraisers, earning a spot on McCain's "Kitchen Cabinet." Guest lists for his fundraisers have included U.S. senators Arlen Specter, Mel Martinez, and Lieberman. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to visit his home for a fundraiser this Friday, October 17.

And finally, there's charity. Rothstein says he's given $2 million in the past year to favorite causes like the American Heart Association, Women in Distress, Alonzo Mourning Charities, Here's Help, and the Dan Marino Foundation. Just last week, he gave Holy Cross Hospital a $1 million contribution from his Rothstein Family Foundation. For that, he'll have a lobby in the medical center named for him and his wife.

He wasn't always flowing in riches. Rothstein tells me about growing up in the Bronx in an apartment so cramped that he shared a bedroom with his sister. His father was a salesman "back in the days when you carried a bag up and down the streets of New York." The family moved to Florida in 1978, when Rothstein was 16. He says his grandmother, the family's now-97-year-old matriarch, used her life savings to help put him through the University of Florida and law school at Nova.

"I grew up poor," he says. "I'm a lunatic about money. Debra Villegas handles all my finances."

Villegas is the law firm's chief operating officer. You may remember her name from one of the year's most highly publicized crimes: the murder in Plantation of Melissa Britt Lewis, who was a partner in Rothstein's firm. Villegas' estranged husband, Tony Villegas, was charged in Lewis' murder. "As far as I'm concerned," Rothstein says, "he should die in the chair or die in jail."

Rothstein says that as a result of the homicide and the nature of the legal business, he's hired a team of "executive protection specialists" to guard the firm and his family — which includes a 15-year-old daughter whose mother was an old friend.

"I'm not going to have someone coming in here and have someone shooting up my attorneys or my wife and daughter," he says. "All the crap I hear about me on the street, I don't put it past someone to try to hurt someone."

He says he hears new rumors about himself virtually every day, most of it not good.

"You get anger from people, you know, 'that prick from the Bronx,' " he says. "They say I'm building the law firm too fast, that it must be a house of cards. We have 40,000 square feet here. Does this look like a house of cards to you? But they don't know what businesses I've been in. And what is said hurts my family."

One of those Bronx bulldogs in his head emerges.

"Anyone who says anything about me or prints anything about me that is not true will have a battle on their hands," he says. "Nobody is going to hurt the people I'm close to. And anyone who does it, I guarantee, will pay dearly. When you lie about me, it's going to be like touching the sun."

So how did Rothstein manage to grow his law firm so large and become a big-spending multimillionaire during the past six years?

"I've had a little luck, a whole lot of blessing, and I have an exceptional knack of picking people to do business with," he explains.

He says from the time he started practicing law in 1988, he had high ambitions, wanting to follow in the footsteps of big Fort Lauderdale lawyers like Bob Traurig, Don McCloskey, and Bill Scherer. Throw in a little bit of Wayne Huizenga and you get an idea of what he wants to be.

But judging from a recent scuffle at his newest restaurant, his operations still have a lot of that tough flavor from the Bronx. Rothstein's team of bodyguards caught the attention of police September 11 when a dispute involving firearms broke out at Riley McDermott's.

Rothstein explains that his firm had hired Robert Heider as a "spotter" to make sure employees didn't steal from the restaurant before he closed on the deal. Heider, however, was in the midst of a feud with a man named Robert Handler, according to a police report. The report claims Handler stormed into the restaurant with a gun to confront Heider.

Rothstein bodyguards Bob Scandiffio and Jose Morales were called. Morales stormed into the restaurant with Scandiffio, who was also armed, following behind. An argument broke out during which Morales allegedly disarmed Handler of his Glock handgun.

In the end, police arrested Handler on a firearms charge. Rothstein, who cooperated with police, says that Morales entered the restaurant without "authorization" and that Scandiffio simply followed him in to help control the situation. He says Morales has been put on desk duty but avers that the bodyguard's actions were "heroic."

Rothstein took ownership of the restaurant the next day.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman