Former chief operating officer of Fla. law firm charged with conspiracy in $1.2B Ponzi scheme

By Curt Anderson, AP
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ex-exec at Fla. law firm charged in Ponzi scheme

MIAMI — The former chief operating officer at the now-defunct law firm run by admitted Ponzi scheme operator Scott Rothstein was charged Tuesday with money laundering conspiracy for her alleged role in the $1.2 billion scam.

Debra Villegas, 42, was accused of helping Rothstein concoct the fake legal settlements used to lure investors — even forging the names of fictional plaintiffs and defendants on the documents. Villegas, of Weston, became the second person charged in the scheme that brought down the Fort Lauderdale-based firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler — and there could be more to come.

“We remain committed to prosecuting investment fraud schemes and all who participate, from top to bottom,” said U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman of Miami.

Villegas faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors are also seeking forfeiture of $1.2 million in cash, a home in Weston valued at about $407,000 that Rothstein transferred to Villegas and $130,000 Maserati Granturismo Coup that was a gift from Rothstein.

An attorney for Villegas did not immediately respond to an e-mail message seeking comment. She is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday; the type of charging document filed by prosecutors typically indicates that the defendant will eventually plead guilty.

Rothstein, 47, faces up to 100 years behind bars when he is sentenced June 9 after pleading guilty to five felony charges. The now-disbarred attorney is currently being held at an undisclosed prison location after assisting prosecutors in bringing unrelated charges against an acquaintance who is a reputed Sicilian Mafia figure, investigators have said.

Just how central Villegas was to the law firm is illustrated by several Rothstein e-mails that have surfaced as part of a lawsuit filed by investors who lost money in the Ponzi scheme.

In one of them, Rothstein reminded the firm’s employees that “when she speaks she is speaking for me … no one is to challenge her authority or come to me to attempt to override any decision she makes.”

Rothstein later added: “We would not exist without her.”

John Gillies, chief of the Miami FBI office, said Villegas had an opportunity to disclose Rothstein’s illegal actions and possibly avoid prosecution.

“She chose greed over her integrity and now she will have to pay the price for her actions,” Gillies said.

Villegas also figures into a tragedy that befell the law firm before the Ponzi scheme was exposed.

She was close friends with one of the firm’s rising young attorneys, 39-year-old Melissa Britt Lewis, who was strangled to death in 2008, her body dumped in a Broward County canal. Later, investigators charged Villegas’ estranged husband, train conductor Tony Villegas, with Lewis’ slaying. Tony Villegas is jailed awaiting trial in that case.

Rothstein has said the slaying led him to hire a security detail that included paying Fort Lauderdale police officers to guard his home around the clock.

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