Wednesday, January 6, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A disbarred South Florida attorney agreed Wednesday to plead guilty later this month to charges arising from an alleged Ponzi scheme that cheated thousands of investors out of $1.2 billion.

Scott Rothstein is charged in a five-count indictment with racketeering, conspiracy and fraud in a scheme that ran from 2005 to 2009.

Rothstein attorney Marc Nurik said his client, who has been jailed without bail since his Dec. 1 arrest, is focused on returning as much money as possible to investors. Mr. Nurik said Mr. Rothstein’s seized assets — two dozen pieces of real estate, numerous luxury cars, jewelry, bank accounts and more — are worth between $60 million and $100 million.

“He said from the very get-go he is going to accept responsibility for his actions,” Mr. Nurik said. “My goal is getting money back to legitimate investors and determining who the legitimate investors are.”

As the scheme unraveled, politicians and parties, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, were forced to return thousands of dollars in donations from Mr. Rothstein.

Mr. Rothstein, 47, said little at the hearing other than to answer a few of the judge’s questions. The once-dapper attorney, now dressed in typical drab beige prison jumpsuit, was led in chains into the courtroom by U.S. marshals.

U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn approved a request from federal prosecutors to create an Internet site to help identify potential victim investors around the world. But Judge Cohn said those that have already been identified must be contacted directly before Mr. Rothstein’s guilty plea. The change of plea hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27.

Mr. Nurik said details of Mr. Rothstein’s plea agreement have yet to be finalized. Defendants who plead guilty and cooperate with federal investigators typically receive more lenient sentences, but Mr. Nurik said Mr. Rothstein is not helping prosecutors bring possible charges against others in the scheme.

“There’s nothing to cooperate about,” Mr. Nurik said. “I don’t think the government needs him for that.”

Prosecutors and the FBI have said their investigation is not over.

Mr. Rothstein is accused of using his now-defunct law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler to operate a Ponzi scheme involving supposedly lucrative investments in confidential legal settlements that turned out to be faked. The indictment says Mrs. Rothstein used money from newer investors to pay off older ones — skimming millions for himself — in a typical Ponzi arrangement.

Mr. Rothstein was close to Mr. Crist and many other state and national elected officials. All who returned contributions from Mr. Rothstein have said they were unaware he may have been involved in wrongdoing despite his over-the-top lavish lifestyle and seemingly unlimited access to cash.

Just as the scheme was unraveling in October, Mr. Rothstein fled in a private jet to Morocco after wiring $16 million to an account that he controlled there. He also carried with him some $500,000 in cash, according to court documents, but ultimately returned to South Florida before he was indicted.

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