By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge wrestled on Tuesday to pick impartial jurors in the trial of five former employees of Bernard Madoff who are accused of helping him conduct his multibillion-dollar fraud.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain questioned dozens of potential jurors on the first day of the trial, asking about everything from their employment to whether they knew victims of the fraud.
Madoff, 75, is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in March 2009. While he said he acted alone, prosecutors say the five defendants helped him operate a fraud over decades that caused more than $17 billion (10.5 billion pounds) in losses.
Those on trial are Daniel Bonventre, the director of operations for the firm's back office; Annette Bongiorno and Joann Crupi, who managed clients' investment accounts; and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez.
Prosecutors said the five created false records and fabricated exotic-sounding transactions to fool investors and regulators. All have pleaded not guilty to dozens of charges, including securities fraud and conspiracy to defraud Madoff's clients. Some have indicated in court filings that they were unaware of the fraud or said that Madoff fooled them.
'DEFENSE WOULD HAVE TO BE REALLY GOOD'
It could take days to select 12 suitable jurors and six alternates for what is expected to be a five-month trial. Some 200 potential jurors filled the ceremonial courtroom in federal court in New York on Tuesday morning as jury selection began.
Questioned by the judge, a potential juror said he manages a men's locker room at the Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, New York, where he said Madoff's former accountant, Paul Konigsberg, was a member.
The man said he knew about 30 victims of the Madoff fraud.
"The defence would have to be really good" to convince him the defendants were not guilty, said the man, who like all the potential jurors was not identified.
Konigsberg, who has pleaded not guilty in the fraud but is not among the five who went on trial this week, has played golf at the club about three times since his arrest on September 26, the man said. Representatives of Old Oaks Country Club did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Attorneys for the defendants objected to including the country club employee in the jury.
"The fact that he knows Mr. Konigsberg is particularly treacherous," Gordon Mehler, who represents O'Hara, told Swain. "It's sort of like having a live wire in the locker room."
Assistant U. S. Attorney Randall Jackson argued it was unfair not to include someone just because they are familiar with victims in the case.
"This is an infamous fraud, that has an almost infinite level of notoriety," Jackson said.
Another potential juror, a former student at Brandeis University who said she does marketing for an Internet start-up, told Swain that "I have read a lot of things" about the defendants and that "I feel judgmental for it."
Jury selection will continue on Wednesday.
'TWO AND A HALF MEN'
On Tuesday, the judge queried potential jurors on where they lived, what they and their family did for a living and entertainment they enjoyed.
"Nothing really, not since 'Two and A Half Men's' not on," a man from Westchester County said when asked about what he watched on television.
Swain said she would address on Wednesday the question of whether the jury will see a video of Madoff speaking to a conference in October 2007, about a year before his firm imploded.
Eric Breslin, a lawyer for Crupi, asked in a court filing on Monday for permission to show the video during opening arguments, saying it shows Madoff's "power and believability; the aura of confidence he exuded."
Prosecutors have charged 15 of Madoff's associates. Nine have pleaded guilty and six - the five on trial and Konigsberg - have pleaded not guilty.
Four of the five on trial this week - all except Bonventre - previously declined plea offers from prosecutors, their lawyers told Swain.
The case is USA v. O'Hara et al, U. S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 10-cr-0228.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Eddie Evans)