Five grim-faced ex-employees of imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff were introduced to 200 prospective jurors Tuesday in New York City as jury selection began in their fraud trial.
The defendants turned toward the crowd as their names were announced by US District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over a trial expected to last five months.
The judge said she wanted to find a dozen jurors who could be fair and impartial regardless of their own experience with either investment securities or law enforcement.
The trial is the first to result from the 2008 collapse of Madoff's private investment business, which cost thousands of investors nearly $US20 billion in a multi-decade scam. A court-appointed trustee has recovered much of the money by forcing those customers who received big payouts from Madoff to return the funds. When the fraud was revealed, Madoff admitted that the nearly $68 billion he claimed existed in accounts was really only a few hundred million dollars.
Among those on trial are Madoff's longtime secretary, Annette Bongiorno; a supervisor in his private investment business; and his director of operations for investments, Daniel Bonventre. Other defendants are JoAnn Crupi, an account manager; and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez.
Six others pleaded guilty in the case, including Frank DiPascali, Madoff's former finance chief and the government's prize witness.
The prospective jurors were told that the names that may arise at trial include filmmaker Steven Spielberg, retired baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, actor Kevin Bacon and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. Also mentioned were Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence, and other members of his family, including his brother, his wife and two sons, one of whom killed himself two years after the fraud was revealed.
Also on the list was Sheryl Weinstein, a one-time Madoff investor who wrote a book describing herself as Madoff's ex-mistress. At his sentencing, she urged no mercy, calling him a "true beast."
Prosecutors have asked the judge to exclude testimony about various romantic and sexual relationships between employees, investors and Madoff, including an alleged love triangle involving one of the defendants.
The judge has said she will make some rulings regarding evidence on a case-by-case basis during the trial.
In a hearing just before jury selection began Tuesday, lawyers for all but Bonventre revealed that their clients had received plea-deal overtures from prosecutors over the past two years. The defendants acknowledged that they decided to go to trial after discussing their options with their lawyers.