When Fort Lauderdale attorney Russell Adler joined Scott Rothstein's fledgling law firm a decade ago, he insisted on being listed as a named partner because of his solid reputation.
As he stood in federal court before his sentencing Friday, Adler expressed regret over persuading the future Ponzi schemer to put him on the nameplate of Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler.
"Being the 'A' in 'RRA' has been an ironic curse that haunts me and humiliates me to this day," Adler, 52, told U.S. District Judge James Cohn, after revealing he was recently fired from his volunteer job at Delray Community Hospital. "I leave my profession in shame and disgrace."
Cohn sentenced an apologetic Adler to 2½ years in prison for illegally bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to a former Florida governor and a Republican nominee for president. Adler, now disbarred, must surrender to prison authorities on Sept. 29.
Adler, who pleaded guilty in April to breaking federal election laws in exchange for salary bonuses from Rothstein, had hoped for far less punishment after he apologized. In court papers, Adler had asked the Fort Lauderdale federal judge to give him a probationary sentence or home confinement.
But that kind of lenient punishment was not in the cards for Adler, despite his peripheral role in Rothstein's massive investment scam that unraveled more than four years ago.
The judge, who sent Rothstein to prison for 50 years, said he needed to send a message of "deterrence" that there is a "price to be paid" when an attorney such as Adler crosses the line. Cohn weighed whether to give Adler a prison term ranging from two years to 2½ years, and opted for the higher sentence.
The judge noted that Adler may not have been involved in Rothstein's Ponzi scheme, but he helped illegally boost their law firm's image with fraudulent campaign contributions to high-profile politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist and GOP presidential nominee John McCain.
"In 2008 and 2009, Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler was awash in cash," Cohn declared, referring to the once high-flying Las Olas Boulevard law firm. "Mr. Adler was at the epicenter, he was at ground zero. Was he blind and deaf as to what was going on?"
Cohn also said he could not overlook that Adler still owed the U.S. government $372,000 in back taxes after earning almost $2 million since the collapse of the RRA law firm in fall 2009, saying it would be "inappropriate" to give him no prison time.
Some of Adler's peers, including Broward County Senior Circuit Judge Richard Eade, appeared to show their support in Fort Lauderdale federal court, calling Adler a highly skilled and ethical lawyer in the courtroom.
Adler, who was admitted to practice law in 1986 after studying at Nova Southeastern University law school, focused on personal injury and other civil litigation. A former client, whose daughter suffered a brain injury, praised Adler in court for representing the family for free after obtaining a $1.8 million settlement in a 2003 car crash case.
Defense attorney Fred Haddad, in court papers, urged Cohn to look at the totality of Adler's life as a once well-respected lawyer in Broward — and not just at his misconduct with the notorious Rothstein. The disgraced lawyer was described by Haddad as the "ghost of Banquo," a literary reference to the army general killed by MacBeth in Shakespeare's play who returns as an apparition to haunt the Scottish king.
Adler is among the most prominent of more than 20 lawyers, associates and other people convicted so far in connection with Rothstein's $1.2 billion investment swindle. The defunct Rothstein firm's other named partner, Stuart Rosenfeldt, who pleaded guilty to a similar conspiracy charge earlier this month, is the latest defendant to fall in the long-running probe.
Rothstein's investment racket collapsed in October 2009. Rothstein, who headed the 70-attorney law firm, pleaded guilty in early 2010 and is hoping that his assistance in fingering his former partners and the other defendants will slice a chunk of time off his 50-year prison sentence.
Adler has always claimed he knew nothing about Rothstein's scheme of selling fabricated legal settlements to wealthy investors from Florida and elsewhere, saying in court Friday that he "trusted Rothstein to a fault."
In court, both sides agreed that Adler illegally bundled between $200,000 and $400,000 in donations to the 2008 campaigns of McCain and Crist, Florida's former Republican governor.
Rothstein's goal was "to increase the stature and apparent political power" of his law firm, according to prosecutors Lawrence LaVecchio, Paul Schwartz and Jeffrey Kaplan, who have led the sprawling investigation along with the FBI and Internal Revenue Service.
On Friday, LaVecchio credited Adler with voluntarily admitting his crime, but also said the judge should consider his wrongdoing in the firm's bundling scheme. "Rothstein was able to buy access," the prosecutor told Cohn. "He was able to buy influence. It cloaked Rothstein in this respectability, which he flaunted."