A convicted Ponzi schemer’s court claims that Charlie Crist engaged in a contributions-for-favors “quid pro quo” has come at a damaging time for the former governor who wants his old job back.
Crist’s campaign and defenders vociferously denied Scott Rothstein’s testimony Wednesday and Thursday as the desperate act of a fraudster seeking to shave time off a 50-year prison sentence for the $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme he masterminded.
But Rothstein’s veracity aside, the political damage is tolling on Crist, who’s also in the midst of a national book tour.
The allegations reverberated in the news media, highlighted past political scandals tied to former Crist donors and put the Democratic candidate on the defensive over making ethics a centerpiece of his campaign against Gov. Rick Scott, who once ran a hospital company socked with a mammoth $1.7 billion fraud fine.
Now Rothstein’s claims have allowed Republicans to step up their criticisms of Crist’s ethics when he was governor from 2007-2011.
"It's gibberish. The guy's a convicted felon,” Crist said. “You can't believe anything he says. It's garbage. Rubbish....He should crawl back in his cave."
Rothstein rendered his two days of testimony in another unrelated case tied to an associate in his former Fort Lauderdale law firm, which sold bogus legal settlements to investors as part of his mammoth Ponzi scheme.
Under oath, Rothstein portrayed the former Republican governor, Crist, as someone who essentially sold “a few” unspecified Broward County circuit court judicial appointments in return for political contributions.
Crist had tapped Rothstein to the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Fourth District Court of Appeal and the Broward Circuit Court.
“He knew how that game was played. I expected him to do certain things in exchange for large contributions,” Rothstein told a defense attorney Thursday in a federal courtroom in West Palm Beach.
Asked if he put any of this in writing at the time, Rothstein said he did “to one of his [Crist’s] assistants,” but he didn’t specify who that was.
Rothstein testified earlier that a major return on investment for his contributions to Crist and others was that it made him look powerful and trustworthy, which enabled him to perpetuate his fraud.
He also said he was “able to convince him [Crist] to do a lot of things" as part of their relationship.
“It was a quid pro quo with the governor,” Rothstein testified.
The allegations of Crist trading judicial appointments first dogged the governor in 2009, when Rothstein’s Ponzi scheme began to unravel.
“It's absurd,”' Crist said of the allegation in 2009.
At the time, Crist was a Republican. He left the party during the Senate race against Marco Rubio. Crist lost as an independent and then became a Democrat after helping President Obama win reelection in 2012.
During his Senate race, Crist received the most contributions from Rothstein and attorneys of his law firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, nearly $81,000. When Crist ran for governor in 2006, Rothstein and his allies pumped $675,000 into Crist’s campaign and political committees supporting him.
Rothstein and his firm also gave at least $628,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2005 and $200,000 to the Democratic Party of Florida.
Rothstein directed contributions to a passel of other local, state and national political candidates, including 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, 2010 Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink, and former Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. Rothstein, who said he had cops on his payroll to do his dirty work, also gave money to charities run by sports stars like Dan Marino, Dwyane Wade and Jason Taylor.
Noting all of the big names who were fooled by Rothstein, Crist ally Dan Gelber said the governor was a victim of Rothstein, not an accomplice.
“Scott Rothstein is the Hannibal Lecter of liars,” said Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and who successfully defended a client from what he said were false Rothstein claims in yet another case. “He’s the most-accomplished liar in South Florida history, which is an incredible feat if you consider all of the scamsters around here.”
As Rothstein’s scheme unraveled in 2009, he helped creditors get their money back. Crist, the Republican Party and most others returned a portion of the tainted money.
The large sums that Crist pulled in from contributors like Rothstein was a forerunner of the special-interest cash Scott started raising after he won election in November 2010: $29 million.
Unlike Scott, Crist ended up facing uncomfortable questions about three supporters: Rothstein; Hollywood eye doctor Alan Mendelsohn, who was busted in a corruption scheme; and developer Greg Eagle, who recently pleaded guilty to financial crimes, although he wants to switch his plea.
Unlike Rothstein, neither of those supporters claimed in open court that Crist was part of a pay-to-play deal.
Though the allegations concerning Crist were covered at the time in the news media, Rothstein’s testimony has made it all news again, said Chuck Malkus, a Fort Lauderdale public-relations professional and author of Ultimate Ponzi: The Scott Rothstein Story.
“There are going to be aftershocks for Crist from these court proceedings,” said Malkus, who witnessed the nine-plus hours of testimony Wednesday and Thursday.
“When the court transcripts come out, it’s typically what political attack ads are made of.”
Rothstein’s allegations resurfaced just as Crist has been on a national media tour plugging his new book, The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.
On Tuesday, Crist sat down with FOX’s Bill O’Reilly to talk about the book and said he was going to make “ethics” a centerpiece of the campaign. The next day, Rothstein appeared in court.
On Thursday, The Republican Party of Florida issued a press release pointing out Crist’s ties to Rothstein, including a photo of the time the two blew out candles on the then-governor’s 52nd birthday cake for which Rothstein donated $52,000 at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.
The press release made no mention of Rothstein’s past support for Republicans.
The 2008 birthday contribution from Rothstein, funneled through the state GOP, blew away the sums donated by a host of other special-interest lobbyists celebrating Crist’s birthday. They each paid $5,200 just to sponsor a candle on the cake, which ended up bristling with candles like a porcupine.
Rothstein’s decision to throw so much money around astonished the well-wishers. But Rothstein didn’t know when to stop showing off, and interrupted the governor as he spoke, according to witnesses.
“Scott, if you want the mic, it’ll cost you $100,000,” Crist said in jest and remonstrance.
Rothstein shut his mouth and shut his wallet — something he rarely did.
Now, five years later, Rothstein is broke and in prison. But he’s opening his mouth. And it’s costing Crist.