What if you plunged your hand into a big bucket to grab as many squirming earthworms as possible? With apologies to the worms, that's what it felt like in 2010 reporting on the squirming mass of rogues and villains working Ponzi schemes in Florida.
We have space here only to touch on one fistful of favorites but, alas, tales of ripped-off Floridians could fill a column every month. Ponzi schemes work this way: A scamster convinces investors they are putting their money into some hot asset, but little or no investments are ever made. The flow of new investor money is used to pay "returns" to earlier investors. Eventually, the flow of new money dries up and everything collapses.
The old saying really is true: "When the tide goes out, you can see who isn't wearing a bathing suit." Nudity abounded this year in Florida, where a struggling economy exposed Ponzis aplenty.
So without further ado, my top five Florida favorites of 2010:
5 Bernie Madoff: Sure, his longtime $65 billion Ponzi fraud — the biggest ever — was uncovered before this year and Madoff is serving a 150-year sentence. But the aftermath in Florida continues at full speed, from the recent auction of his Palm Beach home to his longtime secretary who, unable to make bail, will be transferred from Florida to New York to face Ponzi-related charges. The massive Madoff mop-up has years to run yet.
4 Art Nadel: The Sarasota Ponzi schemer came to be called "Mini-Madoff" for promising high investment returns but really living the high life on other people's money. He, too, is now in jail while the authorities decide what to do with his Florida partners.
3 Thomas "Andy" Bowdoin Jr.: The 76-year-old Florida Panhandle man was charged by the feds with running a Ponzi scheme that generated $110 million from people around the world. He pitched an online advertising business called AdSurfDaily as a multilevel marketing scheme. Investigators claim it morphed into a Ponzi fraud. Bowdoin was arrested Wednesday at a rented home in Englewood, south of the Tampa Bay area, after a grand jury indictment was unsealed in Washington, D.C.
2 David Lewalski: The head of a Pasco County investment firm was indicted in federal court on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud. He allegedly took in $30 million from hundreds of investors promised 10 percent monthly interest in the foreign currency market. Little was actually invested. Florida's attorney general also labeled his Bayonet Point firm called Botfly LLC a Ponzi scheme. Did anyone happen to notice that a "botfly" is actually the name of a parasitic bug that lives off its victims?
1 Scott Rothstein: The once high-flying South Florida attorney early this year pleaded guilty to running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme from 2005 to 2009. It helped pay for his 1967 Corvette convertible, red Ferrari F-40 coupe, red Ferrari F430 Spider, yellow Mercedes SLR McLaren, black Bugatti Veyron, blue-gray Maserati, 2010 white Lamborghini, white Bentley and two (silver or blue) Rolls-Royces.
Five Ponzi-meisters, and we're just starting to scratch the surface. Wake up, unsuspecting Florida investors. There's a Ponzi scam lurking in your future.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.