From its base in South Beach, V Georgio Vodka was supposed to take over the world. Started by college basketball player, recording artist, and sports agent Victor Harvey, the company long ago hooked up with disgraced lawyer Scott Rothstein, who became a part-owner. Rothstein not only bought a stake in the "ultra-premium" — that means ridiculously expensive — vodka but also played a huge role in marketing it.
When Rothstein, who's now in custody awaiting trial for an alleged Ponzi scheme, was a sponsor at the Super Bowl in Tampa, V Georgio was the exclusive vodka sold at the official tailgate party. When Rothstein sponsored the BCS National Championship game at Dolphin Stadium, V Georgio was the official brand at those festivities. When Rothstein bought a piece of the former Versace mansion on South Beach, V Georgio was set to be its featured vodka. When Rothstein teamed up with boxing promoter Don King to hold a championship fight at the BankAtlantic Center this past Valentine's Day, V Georgio was the only vodka sold, at $15 a glass.
Now the federal government is knocking on Harvey's door in Weston wanting Rothstein's share in the company back.
Rothstein might have also opened up some doors at the Seminole Hard Rock, where he partnered with the tribe to hold Zo's Summer Groove. To get an idea of how Harvey rolled, here's a snippet from a blog post of his on April 6: "This weekend was pretty cool. It started off at Hard Rock Live with the Bellator Fighting Championships... We had the body-painted V Georgio girls that we are becoming famous for, strutting their stuff both inside and outside the arena. They stole the show from the ring card girls. ESPN was all over them taking pictures and filming them."
Harvey was trying to create a larger-than-life image for his vodka, and there was nobody better to do that with than Rothstein. Just look at V Georgio's website (vgeorgio.com), which opens with a shot of the vodka company's jet (not sure if it's real) and goes on to shots of South Beach, Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles. Then there's a shot of a velvet rope with the slogan "V Georgio, For Those Who Can."
Yeah, it had Rothstein all over it.
The Feds' To-Do List: The Rothstein investigation targets his inner circle
Now that Scott Rothstein is caged in the Federal Detention Center in Miami, what's next in the investigation? His inner circle is certainly going to get hit. And some of the lawyers from his firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler (RRA), will surely get popped.
On the financial side, a couple of guys associated with George Levin's Banyan hedge fund also look to be in serious trouble. The information used to jail Rothstein mention "lock letters" from TD Bank supposedly issued by regional VP Frank Spinosa. It's unclear whether some or all of those letters were forged, but Spinosa is among the most intriguing figures in the scandal.
The feds are also going deeper into the political arena. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré is jumping on the issue of buying judgeships and Rothstein's position on the Fourth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission. Rothstein allegedly boasted to friends of buying judges from Gov. Charlie Crist and state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer.
"State campaign finance records show a troubling pattern of large contributions from Mr. Rothstein and immediate and subsequent appointments of Judges to the Fourth District Court of Appeal," Ferré wrote last week in a news release. "Is this pattern a coincidence? Could it indicate real corruption in the judicial nominating process and raise legitimate questions about a possibility of Crist's integrity and his fitness to govern?"
Crist appointed Rothstein to the Fourth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission on August 25, 2008, four days before Rothstein contributed $140,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. Rothstein and his firm gave $100,000 to the party on January 26, 2009. Crist appointed Judges Carlos Rodriguez and Barbara McCarthy two days later. Ferré also questioned Crist's appointment of Spencer Levine to an appellate judgeship in the Fourth Circuit, saying Rothstein pushed his appointment despite lack of judicial experience.
"Are all these incidents just coincidence?" asks Ferré. "Perhaps the U.S. Attorney's investigation into corruption in South Florida should be expanded to include the Governor's possible auctioning of judicial appointments in Broward County. We need to know what Charlie Crist knew and when he knew it."
This investigation isn't going to be fast. Prosecutors are done with Rothstein as a target and now are using him solely as a witness. That means the feds need Rothstein to be as credible as possible. They don't want to hear Rothstein stories about insane shakedowns of Italian aristocrats, prostitutes and extortion plots, bodyguards gone amok, wise-guy drivers from New York, and other bizarre tales.
But that's where the fun is.
Two Strikes: A top Broward Sheriff's Office employee not only ran with Rothstein but also covered up a case, sources say
Fort Lauderdale lawyer Michael Santucci went missing for a couple of days in April last year.
The disappearance obviously caused great concern for his father, Arthur Santucci, the highest-ranking civilian employee at the Broward Sheriff's Office and a member of Sheriff Al Lamberti's command staff. BSO set out to find Michael Santucci. Taking the lead in the investigation was Lamberti's chief executive officer, Lt. David Benjamin, according to multiple sources at the agency.
Benjamin was recently transferred out of Lamberti's command staff as revelations about his relationship with Ponzi schemer Rothstein have surfaced. But at the time of Michael Santucci's disappearance, he was practically running the agency — acting as a proxy for the sheriff and running the internal affairs division.
Benjamin reportedly ran a check and found that Michael Santucci had used his credit card in Pompano Beach, according to sources. Santucci was believed to be in a silver Mazda owned by his wife's parents in Doral.
That evening, April 10, members of BSO's Regional Anti-Crime Squad came across a silver Mazda in an empty lot in Pompano Beach, according to BSO reports. Four detectives were also present.
Inside the car was Joe Kennerly, an admitted drug addict, with a crack pipe in his hand. In the back seat was a woman named Maite Polomny.
Kennerly and Polomny led the detectives to an apartment, where they found Michael Santucci and a fourth person who remains unidentified. Sources say there was drug paraphernalia in the apartment.
Santucci was transported to the district office in Pompano, sources say. Someone contacted Benjamin, who responded to the district office and took Santucci away. The Mazda belonging to Santucci's in-laws wasn't impounded.
Only Kennerly was arrested. He was charged with possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Kennerly would later plead guilty to the first count and was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered into drug rehabilitation.
In arrest and incident reports, written by BSO Det. Sean Andrews, there is no mention of Michael Santucci. The only official evidence that he was involved are mentions of the Mazda. Its license plate number, V081ZG, is easily traced to Santucci's in-laws (they have since sold the car).
"Benjamin came in and took him out and voided everything," former BSO Dep. Russell Di Perna says. "Deputies were intimidated by Dave Benjamin."
BSO is mum about the incident. Last week, sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal said he would look into it. But last Thursday afternoon, Leljedal told New Times: "I can't discuss it."
Leljedal answers to Arthur Santucci, who is executive director of external affairs. Calls left with Arthur and Michael Santucci as well as Benjamin went unreturned.
Di Perna, the former deputy, says he learned of the case from fellow deputy John Bailin, a union representative. He said Det. Meghan Brooks went to Bailin about the incident after deputies in Pompano came to her with concerns about the Santucci incident. Bailin refused to comment on the case.
Di Perna says he tried to expose Benjamin's actions, as did Bailin.
A couple of weeks before last year's sheriff's election, Benjamin contacted Bailin and threatened him in an expletive-laced phone message. The message was recorded and was recently played in an arbitration case involving another deputy, making it a public record. New Times was able to hear a copy of the recording, which Benjamin left about 12:35 a.m. October 19, 2008, a Sunday morning. In it, Benjamin says, "You better keep your fucking mouth shut," before hanging up the phone.
Di Perna says Bailin took the recording to his supervisors and that nobody did anything about it or the allegations regarding the Santucci incident.
"Until this day, nothing has been done," Di Perna says. "Why is this guy [Benjamin] still active? Why is he still working?"
Benjamin is still employed, but he has been rocked by the Rothstein implosion. The lieutenant escorted Rothstein to his jet when the lawyer fled the country for Morocco (with about $500,000 in stolen money). Rothstein also helped Benjamin set up a consulting company that he apparently didn't report to superiors. Rothstein funded his company with $30,000, according to a source.
In light of those revelations, Benjamin was first taken from his role of running internal affairs at the department. BSO is also investigating his consulting business, and on December 2, he was transferred out of central command and into youth services, a huge step down.
Di Perna was fired September 29 after Benjamin worked an internal affairs case against him that Di Perna claims came in retaliation for speaking out about the Santucci case, among other things. Bailin has also been disciplined and is on administrative desk duty.
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It's clear that a long-belated investigation of the Santucci incident must be conducted, preferably by an agency other than BSO, which has proven itself unable or unwilling to police itself. The details are still murky, but there is possible official misconduct and obstruction. All communications made by Benjamin and other participants from that night need to be examined, and some questions need to be answered:
Who was contacted about the Santucci pick-up? What was Arthur Santucci's role? Was Undersheriff Tom Wheeler contacted? And what did Sheriff Lamberti know, and when did he know it?
Those are questions that won't be answered until there's a legitimate investigation.
Read Bob Norman's column on the Daily Pulp blog.