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Debra Villegas, Ponzi scheme convict Scott Rothstein’s top assistant, said Friday that her boss told her he was tied in with the Mafia and mobsters would kill him if she didn’t forge fake settlement agreements in his $1.2 billion scheme. Villegas was questioned in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., federal courtroom by U.S. District Judge William Zloch about her role in the fraud before he agreed to accept her pre-arranged guilty plea. She pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy in a sometimes dramatic, 1-1/2-hour hearing. Villegas faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison at sentencing Aug. 20. The judge at first seemed hesitant to accept Villegas’ plea as he sought to pinpoint her level of culpability. “To say she was just involved in it would be an understatement,” he said. Zlocj noted Villegas benefited from the Ponzi scheme, earning a $250,000 salary, occupying a Weston home bought by Rothstein and driving a Maserati sports car that Rothstein gave her. Defense attorney Robert Stickney of Fort Lauderdale told Zloch his client met with federal investigators nine times and accepted responsibility for assisting Rothstein in his conspiracy even though she did not know precisely what her boss was up to. The 43-year-old mother of four worked for Rothstein for 17 years, rising from a paralegal when he was a Plantation employment attorney to chief operating officer of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, a fast-growing Fort Lauderdale law firm. The firm collapsed along with Rothstein’s Ponzi scheme last October, and Villegas was charged by federal prosecutors in a criminal information in April. She said her participation in the fraud scheme started shortly after Melissa Lewis, her best friend and an RRA partner, was killed in 2008. Villegas’ estranged husband is charged with Lewis’ murder. Villegas said she could barely get out of bed after returning to work following the funeral when Rothstein asked her to sign some fraudulent settlements, saying he had to come up with quick cash to satisfy the Mafia. “He said he had gotten in a position with some not-so-nice people,” Villegas said. “He said if I did not assist him, they would put a bullet in his head.” Rothstein told her she’d only need to forge the settlements one time. But Villegas told Zloch that the now-disbarred attorney and one-time political power broker kept asking for her more assistance. Villegas denied knowing Rothstein was perpetrating the biggest fraud in Florida history. She thought the fake settlements were cover for auditors, and the real crime was money laundering for organized crime figures. Villegas said the RRA employee who dealt with the money generated in Rothstein’s scheme was Irene Stay, the law firm’s chief financial officer. Villegas said it was Stay who dealt with the Ponzi accounts at TD Bank and Gilbraltar Private Bank & Trust. Stay has not been charged with a crime. Stay’s attorney, Brian Tannebaum of Tannebaum Weiss in Miami , could not be reached for comment by deadline.

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