BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Jury selection began Wednesday in the federal fraud trial of Richard Scrushy (search) as dozens of potential jurors began filling out questionnaires about themselves and their knowledge of the case against the fired HealthSouth (HSA) CEO, accused of heading a conspiracy to overstate earnings by more than $2.6 billion.
Court officials said more than 110 prospective jurors showed up on the first day of the weeklong process, with a total of 300 expected to report by Friday. Preliminary screening is being held behind closed doors.
Attorneys must pick 12 jurors and six alternates. Opening statements are set for Jan. 18, and the trial is expected to last 10 to 12 weeks.
Scrushy, 52, has pleaded not guilty to a 58-count indictment charging him with conspiracy, fraud, perjury, obstruction of justice and money laundering. He also is charged with false certification of corporate finances in the first test of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (search), passed in 2002 in response to a wave a corporate fraud cases.
A judge asked prospective jurors about hardships such as medical excuses or child-care problems before the questionnaires were distributed Wednesday morning, officials said. A prosecutor and a defense lawyer were present, but an aide said Scrushy did not attend.
"It's a procedural thing. It's not anything he needs to be there for," said Scrushy spokesman Charlie Russell.
Scrushy did make an appearance on local TV, though: The talk-show, Bible-study program he and his wife have hosted on a paid basis since March aired as normal as prospective jurors headed to court. Russell said Scrushy would not use the show to discuss the trial because of a partial gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre.
"He's really, conscientiously concerned about abiding by the judge's order," said Russell.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Small of Miami said picking unbiased jurors was difficult in a case involving someone like Scrushy, HealthSouth's primary founder and Alabama's highest-profile business person for years.
"It's a real problem, and it's a problem that even if a person doesn't have any preconceived notions he runs into people who have a feeling or know about HealthSouth," said Small, who represented former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (search) in his racketeering trial.
Prosecutors say Scrushy was behind a scheme to overstate HealthSouth earnings by about $2.64 billion from 1996 to 2002, a move they contend kept stock prices high by making it appear the rehabilitation giant was meeting Wall Street forecasts.
Seventeen former HealthSouth executives were charged in the conspiracy, and all but Scrushy and a former controller indicted last week pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors. Many are expected to testify against their former boss.
Scrushy could be sentenced to 450 years in prison and fined more than $30 million if convicted of all charges. Prosecutors also are seeking some $278 million in assets from Scrushy.
Courthouse security was tighter than normal for the start of jury selection, with officers making anyone entering the building take off their shoes and pass them through an X-ray machine. Officials said the measure was a precaution, not the result of any threat.