NEWARK, N.J. – The first trial to arise from New Jersey's largest-ever public corruption bust began jury selection on Monday with 60 prospective panelists answering a battery of questions ranging from their favorite television shows to their feelings about government informants.
A total of 15 jurors — 12 plus three alternates — are expected to be seated by Wednesday or Thursday for the trial of Leona Beldini, the suspended deputy mayor of Jersey City who faces extortion and bribery charges, some of which carry maximum prison sentences of 20 years.
The 74-year-old Beldini was one of 44 people arrested in July as the culmination of a three-year federal probe into money laundering and public corruption. Others arrested included two state assemblymen, three mayors and prominent rabbis in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J.
Ten defendants already have pleaded guilty, but those who plan to take their chances in court will be closely watching Beldini's trial, chiefly to see how jurors react to Solomon Dwek, the cooperating witness whose secret tapes of public officials form the basis of the government's case.
Dwek pleaded guilty to a nearly $23 million bank fraud last fall stemming from his arrest in 2006. Among more than five dozen questions posed to each prospective juror on Monday were: Could you consider the testimony impartially of someone who has pleaded guilty to a crime, and would your impartiality be affected by the fact that people were recorded without their knowledge?
They also were asked if they'd seen newspaper or television accounts of the arrests; of the first several jurors, one hadn't but the rest had.
In a move that surprised U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares, defense attorney Brian Neary, representing Beldini, asked the judge to inform prospective jurors at the beginning of the hearing that Beldini was arrested as a part of a larger corruption investigation.
"Usually defense lawyers ask for the opposite," Linares said.
"I'm afraid at some point a light bulb will go on and a juror will say, 'Ah, it's about that case,"' Neary said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey has a spotless mark in corruption cases over the last seven years, with more than 100 guilty pleas or convictions.
That record could be tested in the current group of cases. While Neary's motions to dismiss the charges against Beldini on grounds of governmental misconduct were denied by Linares last week, Dwek is sure to be grilled extensively on his criminal past and on his conduct while under the government's supervision.
"This may be the most outrageous cooperator the government has ever seen," whose conduct "will shake the pillars of justice" when it is described, Neary said at a pretrial hearing.