The politically influential Fort Lauderdale law firm that Scott Rothstein created just a few years ago has attempted to oust him amid a criminal investigation into his business dealings, sending shock waves through political campaigns that took fat checks.
The investigation into Rothstein — a major fundraiser for Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and other major politicians — has left candidates in a lurch and the prominent law firm reeling. The firm — Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler — was a top sponsor of a Fort Lauderdale golf benefit Friday chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Federal authorities on Monday stepped up their criminal investigation into Rothstein, 47, who is suspected of operating a Ponzi scheme by selling hundreds of millions of dollars in fabricated legal settlements to investors.
Rothstein was a high-profile player. He bought million-dollar cars and homes, and doled out generous donations to political campaigns and charities.
But as his business world began to crumble in recent days, Rothstein left the country.
His attorney, Marc Nurik, said Monday that he will return this week, but his whereabouts were a mystery.
On Monday, political candidates and parties that received campaign contributions from Rothstein and his law firm were debating whether to return the money.
Rothstein, his firm and his wife gave about $600,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $200,000 to the state Democratic Party, both of which they said they were "monitoring" the investigation.
Sink, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said she was giving back an unspecified amount of donations. Records show she received $2,050.
"These are very serious allegations," Sink's campaign said.
Rothstein, his wife, employees and relatives of employees of his law firm have contributed $100,550 to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate campaign since the governor announced in May, according to campaign finance records. Rothstein's law firm is one of Crist's top contributors.
Rothstein said in an interview in August that he got married in a three-day wedding celebration at the former Versace mansion in South Beach in January 2008 for about 400 people, and that Crist flew in for it.
Crist, in Fort Lauderdale Monday to tour a Web development company, said little about Rothstein.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse, and I don't want to prejudge anybody," Crist said. "Let's see what the facts are first before we jump forward. But it doesn't look great."
The FBI and other federal investigators are examining a Rothstein-controlled investment company run under the mantle of his law firm, the Miami Herald reported.
Rothstein is suspected of selling "structured settlements" from fabricated personal injury cases, each ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, sources told the Herald. Rothstein allegedly claimed that his law firm anticipated the settlements and that investors who bought them at a discount stood to make from 20 to 52 percent returns.
He also allegedly dipped into the trust accounts of investors to pay off other investors and to finance a lavish lifestyle, the sources said.
Miami Herald staff writers Doug Hanks, Beth Reinhard and Adam Beasley contributed to this article.