Christina Kitterman (Melanie Bell)
The first criminal trial tied to disbarred attorney Scott Rothstein’s $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme started Monday more than four years after the fraud collapsed.
Boca Raton attorney Christina Kitterman, who worked at Rothstein’s labor and employment law firm, faces three charges of wire fraud conspiracy. She allegedly posed as a Florida Bar investigator to deceive investors when they wanted their money back by telling them Rothstein was under investigation.
A jury of 11 women and one man was seated to hear the trial with Rothstein scheduled to appear as a defense witness. Opening statements started in the afternoon.
Eight low-level defendants have pleaded guilty to crimes associated with Rothstein’s settlement financing fraud, but Kitterman is the first to take her case to trial.
Later this month, Deerfield Beach attorney Douglas Bates is scheduled to stand trial for allegedly playing multiple roles to fool investors into sinking more money into the scam.
Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach said he was concerned that news coverage of Rothstein would make seating a panel difficult, but only a handle of potential jurors said they had heard of the former lawyer who turned into political kingmaker and philanthropist using other people’s money at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence LaVecchio told Hurley he would produce statements Kitterman made to prosecutors before she was indicted last August.
The lead prosecutor told jurors some New York hedge funds decided they weren’t giving Rothstein any more money because he stopped paying supposed returns on their investments.
“She entered into a plan to deceive people. She deceived them by pretending to be somebody else to get them to part with money. It’s not a complicated case,” LaVecchio said. “Evidence will show she jumped in with both feet. There was no hesitation. Scott Rothstein told her to tell a blatant lie, and she agreed.”
Kitterman’s attorney, Valentin Rodriguez of West Palm Beach, told jurors Kitterman received no money from Rothstein for committing her alleged crime.
Rodriguez has said the prosecution case is built upon Rothstein, who is trying to reduce his prison sentence by testifying to put others in prison. Rodriguez said records will show his client never pretended to be a Florida Bar official.
Hurley cautioned jury candidates Kitterman couldn’t be convicted simply because she worked for Rothstein, who the judge said embarrassed the whole legal profession. “There cannot be guilt by association,” he said.
Kitterman allegedly said she served as an illegal pass-through for campaign contributions from Rothstein to U.S. Sen. John McCain and then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Rothstein reimbursed attorneys who would make campaign contributions at his direction through bonuses.
Hurley hasn’t decided whether to allow evidence about political donations.
Rodriguez said his client is not charged with any campaign abuse counts, and the evidence would erroneously paint many RRA attorneys as willing to do Rothstein’s criminal bidding.
Rodriguez told jurors Kitterman received no money from Rothstein for committing her alleged crime.
Rothstein, who is serving a 50-year prison sentence, is expected to take the stand near the end of the two-week trial.
Debra Villegas, the former chief operating officer at RRA and Rothstein’s administrative chief, is expected to be called as a witness for the prosecution. She is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
The wild card witness could be attorney Stuart Rosenfeldt, the only other equity partner at RRA who has been subpoenaed in the case. Rosenfeldt, who has not been charged in the case, has said he would invoke his constitutional privilege not to incriminate himself if called. His attorney, Bruce Lehr, a partner at Lehr Levi & Mendez in Miami, said he expects his client to take the stand.
Prosecutors charged Kitterman’s alleged assistance in the fraud allowed Rothstein to get money from investors for his fake lawsuit settlements, some of which carried the forged signatures of judges.
LaVecchio compared Kitterman to Villegas, who forged documents and people’s names for Rothstein.
Rodriguez, though, said his client never received anything beyond her salary while Rothstein gave Villegas a house and a Maserati and paid her a $250,000 salary.
Rodriguez said Kitterman was one of the hardest-working lawyers in RRA, and Rothstein “worked lawyers to death in that firm.”
Attorney William Scherer, a partner at Conrad & Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, was on hand Monday to observe the trial. He represents investors cheated by Rothstein and has interviewed Rothstein in civil depositions.
“People say things differently at trial than what they would say in one-on-one interviews,” he said.