Mega-wealthy lawyer, businessman, and political backer Scott Rothstein called me last week and told me he was the "Jewish Avenger" and was out to destroy me.
Rothstein wasn't joking; he was seething. He told me he was going
to sue me and my wife and bankrupt my household. Rothstein, the managing partner of the law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt & Adler, said he would throw all his legal might at me until I could never "participate in the journalism community again." He even said he was going to throw a news conference about me for the TV stations.
"Most people figure if you're left alone, you'll go away," Rothstein told me. "They figure they should let a sleeping dog lie. I like to jab the dog in the eye. And if it bites me, I'll jab its eye out."
Rothstein once told me he had 43 voices in his head, ranging from lawyers to businessmen to guys from the Bronx streets where he grew up. I felt like there were about five of the latter type on the phone line. It was sort of a phone-call version of being mugged by a gang of hooligans in Central Park.
And I wondered how Rothstein, who not only runs a major law firm and is a major political donor but who also has vast business interests, had so much time for me. This was a guy who, with his partner Tony Bova, recently bought the Versace mansion on South Beach in addition to other businesses. And what I had written about him was always fair and truthful to the point that people had remarked to me that I was soft on him (and I don't hear that often).
Don't worry; I didn't roll over. I told him that I didn't know who he's used to dealing with but that he couldn't bully me, that we weren't on a New York playground, and that he was acting like a childish small-timer. And I told him that if he wantedto come at me, he should come at me and leave my wife alone.
This really isn't personal, certainly not for me, and I don't think for him either. It's about politics and money and who influences the people you elect. It's about the nature of power in Broward County, and it's about Rothstein not wanting me to document the connections between his interests and taxpayers' money. And it all happened because of a phone call I'd made to state Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach).
Jenne and Edify
I called Jenne last Wednesday after I had done a little digging into one of the companies that pays him as a consultant. Jenne does contract work for Edify LLC, a health-care firm in which Rothstein is a substantial investor and sits on the board.
Jenne had told me in July that the companies he worked for didn't do business with the state, a statement I duly noted on the Pulp at the time. Then I learned that Edify has two lobbyists in Tallahassee to influence state government, so I wondered if what he'd said was true. Jenne told me that Edify does no business with the Legislature but that it has some interest in certain state agencies.
I mentioned to Jenne that it seemed he was becoming increasingly linked with Rothstein, who has contributed many hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns, mostly of the GOP variety (though he has recently contributed big bucks to Democrat Alex Sink in her bid for governor). Jenne, of course, is a Democrat. Here are a few of the additional ties between Jenne and Rothstein's law firm and businesses:
-- Jenne formed a company earlier this year called Blue Banyan, which is the business through which Edify and another company pays him. Jenne is the lone principal of the company; listed as the registered agent for Blue Banyan is an attorney with Rothstein's law firm.
-- Rothstein hired Jenne's father, former sheriff and convicted felon Ken Jenne, to work at his law firm after he was released from prison.
-- One of Edify's Tallahassee lobbyists is Grant Smith. Evan Jenne told me that Grant Smith is a lifelong family friend of his and helped him get through the indictment and imprisonment of his father. Smith had experienced a similar family disaster when his own dad, former U.S. Congressman Larry Smith, was convicted of tax evasion and lying to election officials about the use of campaign funds to pay gambling debts. Grant Smith is also employed at Rothstein's law firm.
Evan Jenne said he got the $30,000 gig with Edify after randomly bumping into Edify CEO Howard Gruverman, a Rothstein partner. Jenne said he was hired to help the firm administratively and to help "chart a path" for its future. "Right now in this economy, you work where the work is," said Jenne, who previously worked for a local bank. "They needed help, and I was able to give it to them."
I asked him about the nature of Edify's interests in Tallahassee and whether he'd ever helped them in the capital.
"I literally don't know about any activities they have except what they have spoken to me about," he said. "I have no idea what they do up there. I stay away from it."
Edify has worked closely with the state Department of Health to develop wellness programs and also influences certain health-care legislation, Grant Smith told me. He said the company has never had a monetary contract with the state, though he said it may try to procure one in the future.
"Edify is a health and wellness consulting company, and they have an interest in general public policy as it relates to wellness and health care," Smith said.
The company does have business with other governmental bodies, including the Broward County Commission and the Palm Beach County School Board (both contracts are worth about $300,000 a year).
There is no indication that Jenne has done anything unethical, and he says he contacted the Florida Commission on Ethics before accepting the job. But his work for Edify was worth reporting, as was Rothstein's stake in the company and its efforts at the state level and its work with Broward governments. I wasn't sure when I was going to write about it, though, and I began to work on another story. Then Rothstein called.
A couple of hours after I spoke with Jenne, Rothstein called and quickly went on the attack.
He told me that he was aware of my call to Jenne and that he was tired of me "harming" good people, his friends, who didn't deserve it. He then said he was going to try to put an end to my career.
"I'm going to sue your wife, and I am going to file a suit against you," he said.
He then went on a three-minute beratement, telling me he was going to basically lay my existence to waste. It was a barrage of words. I can't pretend to quote that part of it verbatim. But the message was clear: He was going to destroy me.
I didn't take these threats kindly, especially since I had no idea why he had flown into this fit (other than my having the audacity to call a state representative on the phone). "Are you a child?" I asked him. "You think that I can't cover you when you pour tens of thousands of dollars into local campaigns? You think I can't cover a state representative because of you?"
Then I asked him what he was talking about, suing my wife, a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel. "She did an investigation on me, and while doing it, she did damage to me," he said.
I'm not going to get too deep into that, and I don't know much about it, but my wife did do a story with another reporter recently about Rothstein's getting personal protection from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department at a cost of more than $1,000 a day. It was a perfectly professional and journalistically important article, and from what I can tell, there's nothing factually wrong with it.
It seems to me that Rothstein simply wants to control the way he is covered by the media -- and throwing fits and threatening lawsuits is part of his strategy. The first time I ever spoke to him, he said that if I ever wrote anything unfactual about him, he would "live in [my] house." Yes, it was a threat.
I sort of wish I could ignore Rothstein, but the guy has his hands in all kinds of things these days. It's hard to ignore Rothstein when he's hiring public police to guard his home. Or when he pours money into political campaigns. Or when he holds a fundraiser at his home for a presidential candidate (John McCain) or gubernatorial candidate (Charlie Crist). Or when his business partner, Bova, threw $150,000 into a political committee to do attack ads on opponents of current Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. Or when Rothstein teams up with infamous GOP political consultant Roger Stone, a famous dirty trickster who got his start with Richard Nixon, to help achieve his political aims. Or when Rothstein hires former elected officials, judges, and prosecutors to work at his law firm.
You can't not report on those things. Rothstein isn't just a public figure due to his deep political involvement either. He and Bova have been buying up restaurants around town and most recently purchased the famed Versace mansion on South Beach. He's becoming a business mogul. On top of that, he's an interesting character (and as a reporter, I like that about him).
When I came back at him during the phone call, he suddenly calmed down and told me to do the same. Then he asked if I had any more questions about Jenne. I did, but I kept going back to the fact that he had just berated me for five minutes telling me he was going to destroy me and my family.
"You said you were going to sue my wife and own my house," I told him.
"No, I didn't," he said. "I told you I was going to bankrupt you. I can't get your house because of homestead laws."
I asked him what I had written that was factually incorrect, and he wouldn't answer. But at least we were now speaking in civil tones, which seemed to represent progress. I asked whom he believed I had harmed. He just started talking about his "friends."
"I'm going to take you to task for the damage you cause people," he said, before going into the bit about the sleeping dog and the poking of eyes.
OK, he was going to sue my wife and jab my eye out (figuratively, at least). It was getting unfriendly again.
"You know who you have hurt," he said. "It's the death of a thousand cuts. You take them apart little by little until there's nothing left of them. Think of me as the Jewish Avenger."
How can you not laugh at that? He's turning the town into a comic book. I don't know what religion has to do with any of this, but I pressed him. Who was he talking about? He offered only one example.
"You have used the term 'disgraced' to describe my friend Ken Jenne over and over again," he said. "This is my disgraced friend, Bob? My disgraced friend. When you introduce a friend at a barbecue, do you say, 'This is my disgraced friend, Ed?' Why do you do that?"
I started to answer that Ken Jenne had violated the public trust as an elected official and that the people needed to be reminded of that. But he spoke over me and wouldn't let me get out the words. It was just like being in an argument with a child. Then he asked me if I had any more questions for him. I said, "I did have a conversation with Evan Jenne, who seems like an actual human being..."
That's all he needed to hear.
"Did you just say that I'm not a human being?" he asked, seething once again. "That is the last thing you're going to say to me during this conversation and ever again. The next time you see me, it's going to be in a deposition with six lawyers."
He ranted and cursed and yelled before ending the call by calling me a "mutha fucka." Sounded dead like Pesci in Casino. With that, he hung up the phone.
Thirty seconds later, the phone rang again. It was Rothstein. Another of his voices had emerged, a nice and reasonable fellow.
"Bob, you want to try to be polite now?"
I laughed. This was really funny. Rothstein can be an entertaining guy, and he does actually have a sense of humor (or at least a few of those voices do). There's a reason he's risen to the prominence that he has.
"I'm sitting here wondering how we went from the feature column I did on you to this death match," I said to him.
He said again it was because I was harming people. But it's obvious to me that he just doesn't want me writing about Jenne -- both father and son -- and any other politician, official, businessperson, or lawyer in whom he has a vested interest. He doesn't want me writing about his connection to politicians and companies and contracts. That's why he wants to shut me down. He said it himself; he's the avenger. He's the guy who is going to stop me from doing any more "harm" to the politicos he's close to.
I had to get off the phone to pick up my daughter from school, so we decided we'd finish the phone call the next morning. And we did. Here's what he said, this time slowly and clearly:
"I am going to sue you," he said. "You are about to see how damaging things can be. You have hurt people who don't deserve to be hurt. Maybe I am taking on things that others are afraid to. I may be too stupid to realize that what I'm about to do might cause you to write more horrific things about me and my family."
Cut! I'd never written anything horrific about him or his family. I still don't know what he was talking about. OK, let him resume.
"I'm tired of you hunting around," he said. "You are making something of Evan Jenne. I have a financial interest in Edify, and Edify went out and hired Evan Jenne without me."
He went on to say that he had no say whatsoever in hiring and firing at Edify and nothing to do with its daily operations. He said he'd never spoken with Evan Jenne about the business. (Jenne said the same thing, telling me that he and Rothstein were strictly personal friends.)
OK, back to his vendetta.
"It's not that I relish suing people," he said. "The truth is, I was speaking my mind. You said I was a bully. I'm an anti-bully. I have always, as a child, as a young adult, I have always taken up for people who are hurt by people with more power than them. You have a forum with which to write; you can do good, or you can do bad. The unfortunate thing is that the news media, including you, has taken a terrible turn, and I find it appalling. I am going to open up my wallet to offer legal representation to anyone who you have harmed."
I have more power than the rich and influential politicians who run this town now. Interesting. He said he was holding a news conference sometime this week about the matter.
"I am starting with you and the Sun-Sentinel and a couple of other locals," he said. "When I finish, I think I will have made an important point."
If his point is that he's bigger than the First Amendment, it isn't going to work. If he has an issue of truth with me and my newspaper that are valid, we will immediately right that situation. Because what he doesn't seem to know is that only the truth I write can "harm" his friends. Anything untrue I write will harm me, including my credibility as a journalist. That's the way it works, and that's why accuracy is everything in the journalism business.
But if he expects no scrutiny from the media for him and his well-heeled friends, he's living in a dreamworld. He's going to get written about -- and not just about the millions of dollars he's throwing at numerous area charities either.
So, yeah, he's going to attract attention, and I'm going to write about him as fairly and accurately as I can. It's my job.