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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The trial of five former employees of imprisoned swindler Bernard Madoff began on Tuesday with questions for dozens of potential jurors, including whether they were familiar with some of the most famous victims of the multibillion-dollar fraud.
About 200 juror candidates filled the ceremonial courtroom in federal court in Manhattan, the judge asking each defendant, their lawyers and the prosecutors to stand and turn slowly as she introduced them.
Prosecutors accuse the defendants of helping Madoff, once a respected investment manager, operate a fraud over decades that caused more than $17 billion in losses. Madoff, 75, is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in March 2009 in a case that shook public confidence in regulators.
The prosecution 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 that Madoff fooled them.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain asked the potential jurors if they were familiar with famous reported victims of Madoff's swindle, including actors Kevin Bacon and Zsa Zsa Gabor, movie mogul Steven Spielberg and New York Mets Major League Baseball team owner Fred Wilpon.
While Madoff, who was arrested in December 2008, said he acted alone, prosecutors have charged 15 of his associates. Of them, nine have pleaded guilty and six, including the five on trial, have pleaded not guilty.
The defendants on trial are Daniel Bonventre, the director of operations for the firm's back office, who started working for Madoff around 1968; Annette Bongiorno and Joann Crupi, who managed clients' investment accounts; and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez.
All except Bonventre previously declined plea offers from prosecutors, their lawyers told Swain at a hearing on Tuesday morning before jury selection began.
Selecting 12 suitable jurors and six alternates for what is expected to be a five month trial could take days.
The judge also queried dozens of 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.
Potential jurors included a part-time art teacher, a hospital worker and a theater student.
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."
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 and Grant McCool