Christina Kitterman (Melanie Bell)
West Palm Beach attorney Valentin Rodriguez looked exhausted after verbally sparring with Scott Rothstein.
The disbarred law firm chairman and the mastermind of Florida’s largest Ponzi scheme was called as a defense witness for Rodriguez’s client, Boca Raton attorney Christina Kitterman.
“Scott Rothstein is not going to win this battle,” Rodriguez said defiantly outside the West Palm Beach federal courthouse after the first day of Rothstein’s testimony Wednesday. “But he can absolutely pick up on what you are trying to do.”
Rothstein’s well-documented arrogance made its inevitable appearance during questioning by Rodriguez, a polite-almost-to-a-fault attorney with a knack for quietly getting under the skin of witnesses.
One only needed to recall Rodriguez’s cross-examination last year of egotistical scammer Steven Steiner, an architect of the $800 million Mutual Benefits Corp. viatical scam. Just like Steiner, Rothstein appeared to leave the stand seething.
Rodriguez’s client in the Mutual Benefits case, Steiner’s life partner Henry Fecker, was acquitted of 54 counts to the astonishment of federal prosecutors. Steiner already has received a 15-year sentence fraud related to Mutual Benefits and is still awaiting sentencing in the main fraud case.
West Palm Beach attorney Peter Feldman, Rodriguez’s co-counsel in Kitterman’s case, said, “We knew the risk of calling him as he is unpredictable. I think that risk was outweighed by the jury being able to see him—live and in color—conducting his rock-star lifestyle.”
Rodriguez called Rothstein over prosecution objections, bringing one of South Florida’s most notorious figures into the public eye for the first time in four years in the first criminal trial centered on his $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.
For 1½ days Rothstein spun tales of his brilliance in manipulating millionaire hedge fun managers, often addressing the jury directly in a professorial style. With his hands shackled, he testified about manipulating Gov. Charlie Crist with campaign contributions that Rothstein believes swayed judicial appointments.
But mostly Rothstein talked about being a puppet master, getting staff members at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler to do his illegal bidding without letting them in on his settlement financing fraud. He said he identified staffers like Kitterman with broken moral compasses.
Kitterman is expected to take the stand in her own defense today when the trial resumes before Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley.
Prosecutors have focused on relatively low-level people like Kitterman in the four years since the fraud imploded rather than anyone who directly helped Rothstein commit crimes.
Rothstein ticked off the names of conspirators who face no criminal charges: former RRA name partners Stuart Rosenfeldt and Russell Adler, TD Bank executive Frank Spinosa, the law firm’s COO Irene Stay and Frank Preve, an ex-convict who ran the massive feeder fund, Banyan Investments LLC.
The U.S. attorney’s office had no comment on where the investigation stands.
Former federal prosecutor Joseph DeMaria, now a partner at Tew Cardenas in Miami, said Kitterman’s jury will pick up on the fact that the defense, not the prosecution, called Rothstein. He said prosecutors knew Rothstein, as a prosecution witness, would be asked leading questions on cross-examination.
“If the jury sees what the government did and sees how cynical it is, it will blow up in their face,” DeMaria said. “If they lose this trial, you can kiss goodbye any other Rothstein prosecutions.”
Rothstein testified he had an affair with Kitterman, helped her “paper” clients’ files with false documents and that she routinely hung out with organized crime figures.
Rodiguez said he accomplished what he needed with Rothstein: painting him as an unbelievable witness.
“We were not sandbagged. We were ready for any imaginable lie that he threw our way,” Rodriguez said.
Kitterman is charged with wire fraud conspiracy for allegedly pretending to be Florida Bar attorney on a conference call with Rothstein’s New York hedge fund money men. Prosecutors say she kept the money flowing in to Rothstein’s fraud by saying more than two dozen Bar complaints had been filed against Rothstein to help explain why he had missed payments to them.
Miami attorney David O. Markus, a partner at Markus & Markus, said there’s a lot of unfair second guessing of Rodriguez in the legal community.
“If you don’t take any risks in trial, it’s very, very difficult to win,” Markus said. “Prosecutors don’t have to take risks. Defense attorneys have to take risks because the deck is stacked.”
He said Rothstein’s character assassination of Kitterman may end up backfiring. “I’m surprised Rothstein didn’t say she was on the grassy knoll,” Markus said.
Rodriguez accused Rothstein of spinning tales that would be impossible to verify—a tactic he used repeatedly in hoodwinking his investors.
The frustration of both Rothstein and Rodriguez was palpable. Rothstein repeatedly said, “You are trying to twist my words.”
Andrew Hall, a partner at Hall, Lamb and Hall in Miami, said it’s a general rule that defense attorney’s don’t call hostile witnesses.
“If you do, then what you are doing is throwing a hail Mary,” he said. “You call somebody like that if you think you are in deep trouble and you might hit a home run.”
Kitterman might have benefited by not having Rothstein testify at all, leaving jurors to question why the prosecution didn’t call the chief witness, Hall said.
But only the verdict will tell whether calling Rothstein was the right move.
“If he (Rodriguez) gets a terrible result, everybody will say, ‘I told you so,’ and if he gets her off, he’s a genius,” Hall said.
DeMaria said calling Rothstein was less of a risk than normal because Rothstein sat for two lengthy civil depositions, with hours spent trying to impeach him. Rodriguez zeroed in on the fact Rothstein initially identified a paralegal in his office as the Bar impersonator.
Chuck Malkus, author of “The Ultimate Ponzi: The Scott Rothstein Story,” said Rodriguez’s decision to call Rothstein will work in Kitterman’s favor.
“Rothstein came across as a villain and a slimy operator,” said Malkus, who is observing the trial to update his book. “Rothstein has given the jury a bad gut feeling, and the body language of the jurors indicates that he is not a trustworthy person.”