FORT LAUDERDALE — Former Buccaneers star Warren Sapp, some of America's biggest banks, and tax collectors from Florida to Rhode Island are laying claim to a piece of the collapsed empire of disbarred lawyer Scott Rothstein, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to operating a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.
U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn began sorting through the claims Friday, including one from the bankruptcy trustee for Rothstein's defunct law firm who says more than $469 million is being sought by investors and creditors. Cohn said he hoped to settle the claims — a list of 46 expected to quickly grow larger — by the end of August.
"I intend to put these claims on the front burner," Cohn said.
The question involves which of Rothstein's former assets — including dozens of pieces of real estate and homes, business interests, luxury vehicles, yachts, jewelry and bank accounts — should be forfeited to the U.S. government and which should go to individuals, banks or companies that claim they are the true owners.
For example, Wachovia bank contends that it owns a $2.75 million commercial property in Pompano Beach. Rothstein's former law partner, Russell Adler, says a downtown New York condominium is "100 percent" his and has no link to the Ponzi scheme. Tax collectors in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in Florida and the town of Narragansett, R.I., are demanding taxes owed on several Rothstein-related properties.
Sapp, a seven-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman, is seeking return of more than $102,000 from an unspecified legal settlement that was held in the law firm's trust accounts. At least 33 other former Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler clients have made similar claims for return of their money.
Other than the cash, assets that are forfeited to the U.S. government will eventually be sold, with most of the proceeds going to victims of Rothstein's Ponzi scheme. An auction is scheduled next week for 10 vehicles formerly owned by Rothstein, including a Bugatti Veyron that retails new for nearly $2 million, and an 87-foot Warren yacht.
Rothstein, who fled to Morocco when his fraud scam collapsed in October, pleaded guilty Jan. 27 to five felony charges stemming from a Ponzi scheme in which he sold faked legal settlements as lucrative investments promising double-digit returns.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 100 years, but Rothstein could get a much lighter sentence because of his undercover assistance in helping the FBI snare an alleged Mafia operative with links to crime families in Sicily and New York.
Cohn has already ordered most of Rothstein's assets forfeited to the U.S. government. But the law firm bankruptcy trustee, Herbert Stettin, contends that many of those assets belong in that proceeding because their purchase is directly tied to the firm's accounts.
Lehr, however, contends that even though some people and companies may claim ownership of certain assets there is no way to shift them wholesale into the bankruptcy court.