U.S. News

FBI says Florida fraud scheme could top $1 billion

MIAMI (Reuters) - Federal agents investigating a prominent Florida lawyer suspected of running an elaborate Ponzi scheme said on Thursday the amount involved could exceed $1 billion, and they asked bilked investors to come forward.

At a news conference, investigators from the FBI and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) made a public appeal for information from individuals who had invested in a so-called Structured Settlement Investment scheme offered by 47-year-old Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein.

Criminal charges have not yet been filed against Rothstein, who lived a luxury lifestyle and helped bankroll local politicians, campaign records show.

But a court document filed this week carried allegations that Rothstein masterminded a scheme in which he sold bogus or nonexistent legal settlements to unsuspecting investors since at least 2005. It said new investor money was used to pay previous investors in the classic Ponzi scheme model.

Monday’s filing by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida was used to justify the seizure of properties, luxury vehicles and a yacht belonging to Rothstein.

Appealing for cheated investors to come forward with information, John Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Miami Division, said the fraud investigation was going to be one of the largest ever seen in South Florida.

“I’ll tell you, when it’s all said and done, I estimate that this scheme could well exceed $1 billion,” he said.

He added he did not think that Rothstein had acted alone: “I do not believe this was a one-man show.”

He did not elaborate, and an FBI spokeswoman said the agency could not give details of an ongoing investigation.

“We will not be rushed; we will be thorough and we are far from over,” Gillies added.

Rothstein, who returned from a trip to Morocco last week, has not been arrested and could not immediately be reached for comment. “He can run but he can’t hide,” Gillies said.

Rothstein’s lawyer, Marc Nurik, was not immediately available for comment.

Rothstein told a local TV station on Monday he had made “a very serious mistake” and intended to make amends.

“If anyone’s lost any money, I’m going to do every single thing in my power to make sure that every single penny is recovered,” he said in the interview broadcast by WSVN, speaking with his attorney Nurik at his side.

Rothstein’s Fort Lauderdale law firm Rothstein, Rosenfeldt, Adler, PA, in which he was the chief executive officer and managing partner, was placed in receivership last week.

Federal investigators said they were seeking to determine the full extent of the alleged fraud, which has shocked legal, business and political circles in the Southeast U.S. state.

But Florida is no stranger to fraud scandals. The state has been rocked by a number of high-profile Ponzi schemes this year, including fallout from the cases surrounding convicted Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff and accused Texas financier Allen Stanford.

The settlement ventures allegedly offered to investors by Rothstein involved lucrative whistle-blower and employment discrimination cases. The investors would make up-front cash payments to individuals owed money by the courts to buy the right to collect the full amount of the settlements later.

Additional reporting by Jim Loney and Tom Brown; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick