Veteran Fort Lauderdale lawyer Russell Adler's career effectively ended Friday when he pleaded guilty to breaking federal election laws while working as a senior partner in the law firm of Scott Rothstein — the notorious Ponzi schemer who was convicted four years ago for masterminding one of Florida's biggest investment frauds.
Adler admitted in Fort Lauderdale federal court that he illegally bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the campaigns of GOP presidential nominee John McCain and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist, Florida's former Republican governor.
“I plead guilty, your honor,” Adler, 52, told U.S. District Judge James Cohn. The judge scheduled his sentencing for June 27.
Adler, who faces up to five years in prison for conspiring to defraud the U.S. government, declined to comment. According to his plea deal, Adler agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the long-running investigation by providing inside information on other former attorneys in Rothstein's defunct law firm.
Adler, however, has previously claimed to know nothing about Rothstein’s massive investment scam of selling fabricated legal settlements to wealthy investors. Depending on the value of Adler’s assistance, prosecutors may recommend a sentence reduction.
Adler, represented by defense attorney Fred Haddad, was among the most prominent of more than 15 people convicted so far in connection with Rothstein's $1.2 billion investment scheme. The case against Adler is seen as a possible harbinger for a half-dozen other uncharged Rothstein law partners, employees and investors, including his closest named partner, Stuart Rosenfeldt.
Rosenfeldt, who also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the campaigns of McCain, Crist and other politicians, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
According to the conspiracy charge filed last month, Adler collaborated with Rothstein and other law firm employees to donate the unlawfully bundled donations in 2008 and 2009. Adler and other unnamed co-conspirators at the firm are accused of receiving salary bonuses as reimbursement for those personal expenses.
In 2010, after Rothstein's arrest on racketeering charges, Crist returned the contributions from the law firm and partners. The McCain campaign, however, had already distributed the donations to political action committees in battleground states.
Rothstein's racket, which entailed the sale of fabricated legal settlements to wealthy investors, collapsed in fall 2009. Rothstein, who headed the 70-attorney law firm Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler, pleaded guilty in early 2010 and is serving a 50-year prison sentence.
The conspiracy charge filed against Adler was designed as a plea deal that paved the way for the attorney to plead guilty. It avoided a potential racketeering indictment that posed the risk of a much longer prison term were Adler to be convicted at trial.
Adler, who was admitted to practice law in 1986, has been suspended, according to the Florida Bar’s web site. His felony conviction will lead to his disbarment and the end of his legal career.
According to the charge against Adler, Rothstein funneled some of his fleeced investors' millions through the law firm to finance election campaign donations to fund-raising committees for the McCain-Palin presidential ticket in 2008 and for then-Gov. Crist's bid for the U.S. Senate.
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.
The conspiracy charge claims that Adler contributed $80,000 to the McCain Victory Florida fund in June 2008 and that Rothstein's law firm reimbursed him $140,000, which included a salary bonus.
In October 2008, the charge claims, Adler donated another $124,000 to the McCain-Palin Victory fund and was repaid $143,000. The reimbursement check made out to Adler was “fraudulently backdated” to reflect that it was issued six days before his actual contribution.
The document says that Adler was among many Rothstein lawyers, employees and clients who attended a Crist fundraiser at the Ponzi schemer's waterfront home in late June 2009. The total haul for Crist's Senate campaign: $239,000. Adler's own donation to Crist was $2,400.