NEW YORK – Potential jurors for the trial of former WorldCom Inc. chief Bernard Ebbers (search) were asked Wednesday whether they had financial ties to the company and what they had read in the media about the case.
Hundreds of people filed into a federal courthouse in Manhattan to fill out a five-question jury questionnaire, the first step in the jury-selection process for the upcoming securities fraud trial.
The questionnaire asked potential jurors whether they or members of their families ever owned stock in WorldCom (search) or in MCI Inc. (search) , the renamed version of the telecommunications company after it emerged from bankruptcy.
The form also asked whether potential jurors had heard or read about the Ebbers case, and if they had, whether the information could keep them from being "fair and impartial."
Ebbers is accused of orchestrating an $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom, exaggerating its revenue and disguising expenses so egregiously that the company was driven into bankruptcy in 2002.
The 63-year-old ex-CEO faces charges of conspiracy, fraud and making false filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission (search). The crimes carry a penalty of up to 85 years in prison.
The jury questionnaire said the trial is expected to last until early to mid-March, sitting five days per week.
After lawyers for the government and defense review the questionnaires, jurors will be interviewed one by one in court starting Monday. The jury pool will be narrowed eventually to 12 jurors and four alternates.
Ebbers has pleaded not guilty. Opening statements could begin as early as the middle of next week.
The questionnaire was released by the chambers of Judge Barbara Jones of Manhattan federal court, who will conduct the trial.
In another high-profile financial trial in the same courthouse — the obstruction case against domestic style maven Martha Stewart (search) — Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum declined to make the questionnaire public.
In the Ebbers case, lawyers for both sides have submitted additional questions they want the judge to ask potential jurors one-on-one — including details of their jobs and what newspapers and magazines they read.
Both sides also want the judge to ask the jurors whether they have invested in the stock market in general, and the routine question of whether they know any of the people who may turn up as witnesses.
On Tuesday, Jones ruled Ebbers' lawyers will be allowed to question the star prosecution witness, former WorldCom finance chief Scott Sullivan (search), about marital infidelity.
The decision was a boost for the defense, which will try to raise questions about the credibility and character of Sullivan, who reached a plea deal with the government last year and agreed to testify against his ex-boss.
Jones also blocked prosecutors from asking some other WorldCom executives who have pleaded guilty in the case about conversations regarding the collapse of energy giant Enron Corp. (search) .