Villegas the First of Many to Come

So finally Debra Villegas, who has been cooperating with the feds for months, is officially charged with money laundering.

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Villegas with Ingrid Sahdala, her assistant at RRA
She's the first of many.

Word from sources close to the case is that 20 or more of Rothstein's associates will be charged before all's said and done, several of them from his old law firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. Villegas will be a key witness -- as Rothstein's queen of the inner sanctum, she will be a key witness in numerous cases involving her former coworkers (who generally despised her).

The feds confirm that she helped cook up the bogus settlement deals that Rothstein sold to investors, invented fictitious names, forged signatures, sold interest in the fake deals, and moved money around in the scheme.

Rothstein never could have pulled off the scheme without faithful Debra, but expect her to get no more than a few years in prison (she faces a maximum of ten years).

I am hearing that federal prosecutors Jeffrey Kaplan, Larry LeVecchio, and Paul Schwartz have been knee-deep in the Rothstein case. Since seven months have elapsed since Rothstein fled to Morocco, it's no wonder the natives have been getting restless, but the truth is that the feds are undermanned on this. There was no cavalry that came in from Washington. These guys -- and the FBI agents doing the investigating -- are spread thin on what is a monumental case. The fact that we're talking about overcautious bureaucrats in the federal government doesn't help to speed things up either.  

To understand what Villegas meant to Rothstein, here's a portion of an email the disbarred lawyer sent last March (first published here back in November).

"[W]hen she speaks she is speaking for me," Rothstein wrote about Villegas. "Thus, absent extraordinary circumstances, no one is to challenge her authority or come to me to attempt to override any decision she makes... Please NEVER tell Debra, or anyone behind Debra's back, that you are going to just 'take it to Scott.' That defeats the purpose of having a COO that I have trusted for nearly 2 decades..."

Then he went into all-caps mode:  

"For those of you who do not understand Debra's significance to RRA....let me elaborate briefly.....WE WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT HER---SHE HAS HELPED ME AND CONTINUES TO HELP ME MORE THAN I COULD EVER EXPLAIN.....OUR OFFICES THAT WE CURRENTLY OCCUPY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED WITHOUT HER......OUR GROWTH WOULD BE IN REVERSE......WE NEVER WOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FULFILL THE VISION OF WHAT RRA HAS BECOME WITHOUT HER----WE

WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO CONTINUE TO PURSUE OUR VISION WITHOUT HER-----SHE IS ONE OF THE MAIN REASONS THAT WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CONTINUE TO GROW DESPITE THE TOUGH ECONOMY....DESPITE WHAT YOU MAY THINK---SHE IS FAR MORE OFTEN THAN NOT YOUR GREATEST ADVOCATE----".

As it happens my colleague Lisa Rab has been digging into the life of Villegas. She just completed a cover story that hasn't even hit the streets yet -- here's a link to it. And here's a passage from a recent blog post on the Juice that she wrote based on interviews Villegas did with Plantation police after her estranged husband, Tony Villegas, allegedly killed her best friend, RRA partner Melissa Britt Lewis:

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[F]rom the extensive, sworn, taped interviews she gave to Plantation police after Melissa Britt Lewis was killed, it seemed that Debra fit the profile of a battered woman. She was terrified to leave Tony Villegas -- she says he threatened to cut her up and "feed [her] to the alligators" if she did. But at work, she found a savior in her boss, Scott Rothstein.

She worked for Rothstein for more than a decade, ascending from her post as a paralegal with no college degree to chief operating officer of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. She considered Rothstein to be "like a brother," she told police.

He trusted her to handle the firm's money and paid her a six-figure salary. He made her gatekeeper of his "inner sanctum" -- the heavily secured area on the 16th floor of the firm's offices where he allegedly solicited investors in his false legal deals. Later, he bought her a $475,000 house in Weston and a Maserati.

"You know, Scott pays me very well. Scott's very good to me," Debra told police.

Debra knew that she was a drastically different person at work than she was at home, and she acknowledged as much when she spoke to police in 2008.

"I was the strongest person in the world," she said in a sworn interview. "I run Scott's law firm. I'm negotiating, you know, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. I go head-to-head with anybody, and Scott calls me a cold-hearted bitch.

"I'm just like the toughest person in the world until I got into that little world [at home], and I was terrified, whether I stayed or left, that he [Tony] was gonna kill my kids and kill me."

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More coming.


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