April 01--A 65-year-old Fort Lauderdale lawyer who rolled the dice on a criminal trial -- and lost -- will learn Tuesday whether he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Anthony M. Livoti Jr. was convicted in December of playing a supporting role in a $1 billion-plus insurance-investment scam, among the largest financial frauds in Florida history.
But because he didn't cut a plea deal like a dozen other defendants -- including most recently the Ponzi scheme's mastermind -- Livoti could be sentenced up to 80 years for manipulating trust accounts to keep Fort Lauderdale-based Mutual Benefits Corp.'s racket going for a decade.
A 12-person Miami federal jury found Livoti guilty of conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering, along with two other counts. But the jury found the lawyer not guilty of 20 other related charges.
Still, because Mutual Benefits' investors lost more than $800 million in the fraud conspiracy, Livoti is being held responsible for that entire loss. And that factor, under federal sentencing guidelines, makes him an extremely vulnerable defendant for an effective "life sentence."
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, who ordered Livoti to surrender immediately to marshals after his conviction in December, has the authority to give him a far more lenient prison term.
Livoti's defense attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, citing his client's years of charity work in the gay community and as general counsel to the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, said he deserves between five and six years in prison.
Hirschhorn said his client earned between $80,000 and $120,000 yearly over a decade while acting as trustee for Mutual Benefits, while the company's top executives stole $15 million each before it was shut down by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004.
Hirschhorn noted that 11 of the 12 convicted Mutual Benefits executives and associates received prison terms ranging from 1 year to 20 years.
Joel Steinger, a previously convicted felon who served as the de facto head of Mutual Benefits, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts last week and faces punishment in that range at his sentencing in June. His brother, Steven Steiner, who pleaded guilty last year rather than face trial with Livoti, received a 15-year sentence under his plea deal. Both brothers lived in Fort Lauderdale waterfront mansions before their downfall.
"Livoti is 65 years old," Hirschhorn wrote in a court filing. "He asks for the opportunity to still have some meaningful life beyond incarceration."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Rochlin sharply disagreed, saying Livoti as Mutual Benefits' trustee sustained the scheme by allowing Steinger, Steiner and other executives to steal millions from the company's investors.
Rochlin said a "severe sentence is called for," without recommending a specific number of years.
The once-high flying Fort Lauderdale-based brokerage company sold $1.25 billion worth of life insurance policies held by people dying of AIDS, cancer and other terminal illnesses to some 30,000 investors.
The investors bought the policies at a discount, with the promise of receiving full value upon the death of the beneficiaries. Ultimately, they lost $835 million before the business was closed amid allegations of fraud.
Livoti, as trustee, controlled Mutual Benefits' investment accounts. Livoti was convicted of using newer investors' money to pay the premiums on older life-insurance policies. Prosecutors called it a classic Ponzi scheme.
But Livoti's attorney, Hirschhorn, argued that the prosecution miscast his client's part, saying he was actually kept in the dark about the investment scam by Mutual Benefits executives who manipulated him to line their own pockets. He said Livoti's principal role was to ensure that the premiums on policies were paid up so that they would not lapse and investors could be made whole when beneficiaries died.
Before standing trial, Livoti had been better known as the general counsel for the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, representing local police officers in union contracts.
Numerous supporters, including South Florida lawyers and police officers, wrote letters urging Judge Scola to give Livoti a lenient sentence, while a few others recommended a harsh prison term.
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