The Ultimate Ponzi: The Scott Rothstein Story
Book about South Florida fraudster skewers its subject and memorably portrays its milieu
Scott Rothstein is an unforgettable character. Born in 1962 to a totally unremarkable nice Florida family, he built Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler into a legal giant, with over 70 lawyers at its peak. He also stole more than a billion dollars. Greedy, manipulative, flashy, egomaniacal and ultimately completely without a conscience, Rothstein defrauds those closest to him. The “investment product” here — shares in lawsuit proceeds — seems so flimsy that the book’s biggest hurdle is explaining how sophisticated investors, including some of South Florida’s business titans, could fall prey to a guy so desperate to fit in among Ft Lauderdale’s elite.
The Ultimate Ponzi ably passes that test, as savvy business people—even including some who were put off by Rothstein’s look-at-me charitable donations, $6000 suits, friendship with then-Gov. Crist, and yellow Lambo—find themselves writing checks to buy a sure-thing share in settlements the lawyer assured them was coming. You know how that goes. The checks went to fund earlier investors (plus clothes, cars, political donations and a parade of floozies impressive even for South Florida). Then those “great returns” inspired other investors to want in the action. Boom: a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme that stands as the biggest in the history of a state that many consider America’s fraud capital.
Author Chuck Malkus knew Scott Rothstein. He is also clearly familiar with the social dynamics of the upper echelon of Fort Lauderdale — steakhouses like Jackson’s and the Capital Grille are basically crime scenes. That gives Malkus, the author of a pretty good wrestling book Full Circle that became an ESPN documentary, real authority here and his book has that “ring of truth” so critical to true crime.
In fact, the book drips with contempt for the shyster at its center. “I got a close-up look at Scoot’s obnoxious need to obtain attention” and a chapter called “Free Spending, Bad Taste” are two of a hundred examples where Malkus disregards the objective voice more common to reported non-fiction. But Rothstein is such a loathsome character—he stole from his friends and legal clients—the judgey tone aptly captures the reader’s own astonishment at the sheer chutzpah of a guy who forged judges’ signatures to keep the money flowing.
To his credit, Malkus goes to some effort not just to portray Rothstein, but to understand him. Some of the most compelling section features an interview with Dr. Joan Pastor, a psychologist experienced in white collar crime. These “I never met the man, but…” diagnoses should be treated with skepticism, as Pastor acknowledges. But her long-distance assessment rings very true. “Scott may have pressed forward with his crimes, his extravagant lifestyle, his high public profile just to avoid the monotony that develops when bright people get what they think they wanted and realize it’s really not what they want. He could have a perpetual restlessness and a yearning for excitement. Lavish parties, drugs, alcohol, and sexual exploits are not uncommon.”
Ultimately, Rothstein gets what’s coming to him. In October, 2009, with the walls closing in, he wired $16 million to a crony in Casablanca and departed for Morocco, his lawyers having told him the country reliably declined to extradite accused American criminals. Weeks later he sent a suicide text to his law partners. And then, on December 1, 2009, Rothstein turned himself in to the FBI. By January of 2010. he had pleaded guilty to five federal crimes and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In fact, it’s really hard to recall any “successful” Ponzi scheme. Obviously, we know about them once their perpetrators are arrested. But is there a single example in American history of someone confessing on his deathbed (or being revealed posthumously) to having attained his wealth by defrauding others? In Rothstein’s case, his downfall is as sudden and dramatic as his rise, with an attempted escape and startling efforts to drag others into his quicksand.
The Ultimate Ponzi paints a memorable picture of an unforgettable villain. But it succeeds beyond that by portraying its time and place — South Florida at the beginning of an economic boom that continues to this day—with real color and insight.