MIAMI — Just when disgraced lawyer Scott Rothstein's sordid saga couldn't get any stranger comes this plot twist: He worked undercover for the feds and helped them bag a suspected Italian Mafia man living in Miami Beach.
Rothstein's cooperation dating back to last fall means the con artist who orchestrated South Florida's biggest Ponzi scheme -- stealing $1.2 billion from dozens of innocent investors -- will benefit from his acting skills and seedy connections when he is sentenced in May.
Rothstein's luck appeared to have run out when he returned from Morocco last November after the implosion of his Fort Lauderdale law firm. But days later, Rothstein spilled his guts to the feds and, hoping to save his neck, agreed to wear a wire to set up Roberto Settineri. The Italian, who was wanted on organized crime charges in Palermo, was arrested Wednesday at his Miami Beach residence.
Pretending he was being dogged by the FBI and needed help, Rothstein allegedly talked Settineri into tearing up two boxes of documents and laundering $79,000 from Rothstein's massive investment racket, according to sources familiar with the case.
``He knew Settineri,'' a source said. ``He was able to chat up Settineri.''
For helping bring down Settineri, Rothstein could end up in the federal Witness Protection Program -- with a new identity, but inside a prison with special protection. Rothstein, 47, faces up to 100 years at his sentencing May 6.
Rothstein's lawyer, Marc Nurik, could not be reached for comment. On orders from the feds, he denied that his client was cooperating with authorities and had paraded Rothstein around town before his arrest to dispel rumors to that effect.
Rothstein's transformation from fugitive suspect to undercover witness started last November when, seeking to cut a deal, he laid out his criminal investment scheme to federal authorities. Prosecutors asked him to identify co-conspirators, and if he knew of any suspected criminals in South Florida.
Rothstein mentioned Settineri, 41, as a reputed mob figure without realizing his importance to U.S. and Italian authorities. Italian police have accused Settineri of being a liaison between the Palermo crime family, Santa Maria di Gesu, and the Gambino family in New York.
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