(AP) The lavish lifestyles of former employees of jailed financier Bernard Madoff can't be used against them at their upcoming criminal trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain came during a pretrial hearing for five of Madoff's former employees after defense lawyers filed papers complaining that the government wanted to use tales of fancy cars and vacation homes to turn jurors against their clients.
Swain found that any attempt to portray the defendants "as greedy or extravagant" could unfairly cloud jurors' perception of them.
The ex-employees of Madoff's private investment business are accused of assisting his fraud by doctoring books and records to show fictitious trades and phantom accounts in a fraud that reached into the 1970s and ended only after Madoff's arrest in 2008. Investors lost nearly $20 billion, though a court-appointed trustee has recovered billions of dollars for the thousands of people who lost money in the scam.
Scheduled to go to trial Oct. 7 are Annette Bongiorno, Madoff's longtime secretary and a supervisor in his private investment business; Daniel Bonventre, his director of operations for investments; JoAnn Crupi, who managed accounts; and two computer programmers, Jerome O'Hara and George Perez. All have pleaded not guilty.
In court papers, lawyers for Bongiorno wrote that they feared the government would taint the jury with "prejudicial proof ... that she owned beautiful homes, drove luxury cars, and liked to buy her sweater sets at Nordstrom's."
They argued Bongiorno's trial "should not be hijacked by reams of proof which will be offered by the government for the sole purpose of inflaming the jury, such as documents relating to the purchase of her husband's Bentley and her Mercedes, both of which were seized long ago and impounded."
Crupi's lawyers made a similar argument, saying "whether she purchased a beach house or not, went on vacation or not, bought a deluxe refrigerator or not, proves nothing about what happened ... or what Ms. Crupi knew."
Her lawyers asked the judge to reject the government's argument that her 2008 purchase of a million-dollar beach house was relevant to the trial because the money used to buy it went from Madoff's business accounts to a trust account at the law firm handling the house purchase.
"Reference to the house adds nothing but prejudice," the lawyers said.
The judge barred evidence of personal purchases made by the defendants. However, she found the jury could hear about the beach house and a Caribbean vacation for another defendant because Madoff's firm directly helped fund them.
Six others have pleaded guilty in the case, including Madoff's chief financial officer, who is expected to testify at next month's trial.
Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence in Butner, N.C.
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.