Rothstein Gets 50 Years in Prison

Scott Rothstein was sentenced this morning to five decades in prison by U.S. District Court Judge James Cohn.

The judge was vocal not only about the $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme in which investors lost an estimated $429 million but also about Rothstein's forgery of federal officers and bogus court papers, saying those actions were "the most egregious wrongs a licensed attorney can commit." His 50-year sentence was more even than the 40 years prosecutors had sought.

[OK, now I'm writing rather than phoning it in.] Rothstein looked like he'd lost a good 30 pounds. His hair was grayer still, and he wore a goatee. He actually looked tanned and healthy in a long-sleeved, white, button-up shirt, dark pants, white socks, black sneakers, and the chains shackling him. 

Kim sat in the second row behind him and wept when Rothstein entered the courtroom. She sat next to her friend, Stacie Weisman at her left, and Scott's father, Harvey, at her right. Next to Harvey was Scott's sister, Ronni, and next to her was mother Gay.  Also in the row was Kim's attorney, Scott Saidel, who sat next to Weissman.

Cohn opened the proceedings by asking if any of Rothstein's victims were present in the courtroom who wanted to speak. In the back row, a black woman stood up and said she'd like to speak. It was

Shirley Blades, a relative of Charles Blades III, from the Blades football family. Rothstein became deeply involved in Charles Blades' life after his father, Charles Blades Jr., was killed by Brian Blades. Rothstein told me during one interview that he was like a father to the young Blades, who is now 26.

In what was a bit of a dramatic moment, Mrs. Blades was led up to the podium, and Cohn let her speak even though she was there to show Rothstein moral support. She simply turned to Rothstein, with tears streaming down her face, and said, "My brother, may God bless you. May God bless you."

That prompted Gay, Ronni, and Kim all to start crying. Blades was followed by Steven Bitton, a Plantation man who was a client of Rothstein's. He said that he was offered a settlement in a lawsuit with the City of Plantation that Rothstein simply never told him about (outside the courtroom, he said that the offer was for $650,000 and that the city was now claiming the deal was no longer on the table and that the statute of limitations had passed). "I went to see him every month for four years...," said Bitton. "You trust your attorney. You put your faith in him... It's not just the investors [who were hurt]."

Then Nurik took the stage and spoke for over an hour on behalf of Rothstein. He started by asking Cohn to focus on "the rule of law, not the rule of mob, not the influence of the media, not the frenzy."

He asked Cohn to sentence Rothstein for "who he is, not for how he's been demonized." He said Rothstein, who turns 48 tomorrow, had lived 43 years as a "caring, loving person" before he turned to a life of crime.

Nurik also said that nobody would come to speak on his behalf -- expect Blades, whom he said was a surprise even to him -- for "fear of vilification... and demonization" by the media and community. 

Cohn asked Nurik why he thought Rothstein "engendered so much public attention."

"Mr. Rothstein lived larger than life," Nurik answered. "Mr. Rothstein was very brash, very vocal... his face was plastered on every society page... he was everywhere, doing everything."

Nurik continued that there was a lot "schadenfreude" in this case -- joy in the demise of another -- and that law firms and lawyers in town were "quite frankly jealous... a lot of lawyers wondered how [RRA] could grow so fast."

"Isn't his lifestyle part of the manner in which the crimes were committed?" asked Cohn.

Nurik said it was "to some degree," specifically in terms of the political contributions and "certain things in town" (I assume he was talking about charity events) that he did to gain "access to certain people."

The defense attorney really hammered the point that Rothstein's case was almost identical to that of New York attorney and Ponzi schemer Marc Dreier, who received a sentence of 20 years for his crimes. Dreier, Nurik said, "may not have been in a community like this one, in fact, he was in New York, the Big Apple... he was in a much bigger pond... being in a smaller pond, all of these things have been magnified [in Rothstein's case]... magnified way beyond proportion, and as a result, we don't have anyone [willing] to talk of his good deeds."

He talked of newspaper coverage, saying that there had been more than 50 front-page stories and that there were blogs and websites devoted to him (no, he didn't mention the Daily Pulp by name).

"His own wife did not write a letter to the court... everything she has done in this case has been demonized," he said.

Nurik said Rothstein told him he didn't want Kim to write a letter, saying, "I don't want to put her through that."

The lawyer said his client would have no capacity to commit crimes upon his release, that he would be broke, his reputation destroyed, and, in a clear reference to his cooperation with the government and reports that Rothstein will join the witness protection program,  that he would be "likely hunted by some and forever monitored by the government."

Nurik repeated much of what he'd written in his sentencing memorandum about Rothstein's flight to Morocco, saying he found himself in Casablanca in an "ideal situation," outside the grasp of the government and in possession of $16 million and a watch collection worth several million. He said Morocco wasn't a bad place to live either, citing the fact that two current movies -- Prince of Persia and Sex and the City 2 -- were shot there.

As for anyone who might have wanted to harm Rothstein, Nurik said, "Any suggestion he was at risk [from enemies], he had plenty of money to secure himself." 

Then Nurik said he had looked for an appropriate quote to describe Rothstein's situation and found one from Bruce Willis but thought it wasn't appropriate, so he settled on this one: "It is impossible to undo the past, but you can acknowledge the truth, ask for forgiveness, and leave the rest to God."

He said Rothstein was truly set on making his victims whole. He mentioned the Fox interview and the video of Rothstein at the Capital Grille wherein Rothstein said he was going to do the right thing. He brought up William Scherer's letter of support, as well as that of bankruptcy trustee Herbert Stettin.

But Nurik stressed the similarities with the Dreier case, at one point saying, "You wonder did Mr. Rothstein and Mr. Dreier sit down one day... and plan this?"

Judge Cohn wasn't having that argument, though. He interrupted Nurik on a few occasions to remind him that Rothstein did something that Dreier never did: He forged a federal judge's signature on fabricated court documents.

"Are we comparing apples to apples?" Cohn asked Nurik.

Later, the judge said that because of the forgeries -- which occurred in the Ed Morse civil suit -- there was a "huge difference" between the Rothstein and Dreier cases.

That's when Nurik started floundering a bit, saying that the forged signatures of federal judges didn't involve "real litigants," which of course is a falsehood (Ed Morse is real, after all). Nurik rationalized the forgeries, saying they were a "natural extension" of the fraud Rothstein was committing. "He did not forge signatures on cases," said Nurik, before catching himself. "I think there may have been one case that was a real case."

That save, however, came after he'd already mischaracterized the facts. In the end, Nurik said he felt that Rothstein should get the 20 years that Dreier received plus an extra ten years for his court forgeries for a total of 30 years.  

When Nurik was finished, Rothstein himself rose and turned in his shackles and read a statement that he'd dictated to Nurik. It was then that he apologized to "those that I stole from," to the "RRA family," to the community, and to the judiciary. "I do promise you that I will do everything in my power to undo the terrible harm that I caused," he said. 

Rothstein remained composed during the very short reading, but his voice did crack with emotion, specifically when he mentioned his family. It was a genuinely powerful moment in the courtroom.

After a five-minute recess, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence LeVecchio got up and gave the government's position, asking Cohn to give Rothstein 40 years. LeVecchio was very matter of fact in his argument, which was, compared to Nurik's sprawling speech, quite concise. He did point out that Nurik was wrong about the forgeries, which he noted "did involve a real case" before providing details about the Morse case.

But it was clear that LeVecchio didn't want to push any of the issues much; the government, it is true, is happy with Rothstein's cooperation. The prosecutor did say that Rothstein's crimes put him in the "pantheon of fraudsters."

Then, finally, Cohn spoke. And man, did he speak. He waxed poetic about Rothstein's case, saying that it was "all about image, wealth, power, and influence" and that Rothstein rivaled "Madison Avenue" in the way he marketed himself.

"[Rothstein's] political connections stretch from the sheriff's office on one end of Broward Boulevard all the way to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on the other end of Broward Boulevard to the governor's mansion in Tallahassee... and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House," Cohn said.

Cohn mentioned the society pages, the political contributions "funneled through Rothstein's attorneys and their wives," his attending sporting events "with BSO brass," all designed to create an "appearance of legitimacy but we now know was all a facade, a fraud.

"This Ponzi scheme was not the result of a poor buisness decision. Quite the contrary, it was fraud at its inception... causing 400 investors to lose $400 million... many people have been swept up in the tsunami that followed."

Cohn not suprisingly said that he believed Nurik's comparison to the Dreier case was "unpersuasive," saying that there could be "no conduct more reviled" than Rothstein's forging of court orders.

"The court must take a step back and ask what makes the Rothstein case different," Cohn said. "Why has this case created such a media frenzy?... I think the primary reason is that Mr. Rothstein infiltrated so many spheres of our daily life... politics, sports, charities, the society pages, the legal profession, billboards. Mr. Rothstein was seemingly omnipotent. He was everywhere. He was not only everywhere but everywhere with excess."

Just before he handed down the 50-year sentence (followed by three years of supervised release), Cohn said he felt that "public perception" was important.

While his mother wept, Rothstein didn't give a visible reaction. When Cohn was finished, he was led out of the courtroom through a side door. He didn't look back.

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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