By Grant McCool
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The biggest Wall Street insider trading criminal case in a generation goes to opening statements on Wednesday, when prosecutors and defense lawyers for Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam face off in court.
A New York jury will hear U.S. prosecutors outline how they believe the Sri Lankan-born hedge fund manager broke the law by designing a complex web of stock tippers who helped him reap $45 million in illicit profit between 2003 and March 2009.
The jury and observers of the high-profile case may also get insight into the defense trial strategy, which faces seemingly overwhelming evidence of leaked corporate secrets, tapped telephones and friends-turned-government witnesses.
"The defense doesn't really get to show the whole picture until the trial and then it really can be quite different and end up with surprising results," said Stuart Gasner, a defense lawyer at Keker & Van Nest law firm in San Francisco and a former prosecutor.
Judge Richard Holwell sent prospective jurors home on Tuesday with a warning not to read anything about the highly-publicized case. He then told prosecutors and Rajaratnam's multimillion-dollar defense team that opening statements would go ahead "for sure" on Wednesday.
Holwell said on Wednesday morning that he had a group of 40 prospective jurors, whittled down from an earlier pool of about 150, and would ask them general questions about themselves. A panel of 12 and six alternates will be chosen.
Some in the jury pool were heard complaining about the length of time they were being asked to serve - up to eight or 10 weeks. During the questioning, Rajaratnam sat impassively, flanked by his lawyers.
Since arresting the 53-year-old U.S. citizen in October 2009 and announcing criminal charges against 26 former traders, executives and lawyers, authorities have pressed ahead with what they call the biggest probe of insider trading in the $1.9 trillion hedge fund industry.
Nineteen people have pleaded guilty in the Galleon case. It stands apart from past insider trading investigations because of the government's wide-scale use of phone taps. Jurors will hear up to 173 audio recordings during the trial.
Defense lawyer John Dowd has argued in court papers that prosecutors have broadened the definition of insider trading. He says a money manager's liberty should not be at risk because he trades a stock while knowing something about the company.
The burden of proof is on prosecutors to convince the jury that evidence shows Rajaratnam knew he was trading on confidential information provided by someone who had a fiduciary duty not to disclose it.
In the week before the trial, U.S. market regulators and prosecutors uncorked allegations against Rajaratnam's friend and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc director Rajat Gupta. They described phone calls in which he tipped Rajaratnam about confidential Goldman information before it became public.
Gupta faces a civil proceeding brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission but he has not been criminally charged. He denies wrongdoing.
Lloyd Blankfein and David Viniar, Goldman's chief executive and chief financial officer, were on a list of possible witnesses or people who could be mentioned at the trial. Goldman has not been accused of wrongdoing.
The case is USA v Raj Rajaratnam, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 09-01184.
(Additional reporting by Basil Katz, editing by Andrew Marshall, Dave Zimmerman)