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Judge to consider Fastow venue change

A federal judge is set to consider whether to move next year's trial of former Enron Corp. finance chief Andrew Fastow from Houston.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal judge is set to consider whether to move next year's trial of former Enron Corp. finance chief Andrew Fastow from Houston.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt also is slated Tuesday to consider postponing Fastow's April 20 trial.

Fastow, who will turn 42 on Monday, is charged with 98 counts of fraud, money laundering, insider trading and others for allegedly masterminding a plethora of schemes that hid Enron's debt, inflated profits and allowed him to skim millions of dollars for himself, his family and selected friends and colleagues.

He is the most high-profile of more than two dozen former Enron executives charged — including his wife, Lea — as a result of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into Enron's scandal-ridden collapse in 2001. He has pleaded innocent to all charges and is free on $5 million bond.

Andrew Fastow's legal team in late October asked that his trial be moved from the 13-county Houston division of the Southern District of Texas because surveys conducted by a San Diego State University professor in June showed more than half of people polled in the Houston, Austin and New Orleans areas had heard of Fastow's case and believed him to be guilty.

Defense lawyers said intensive, individual questioning of potential jurors wouldn't be enough to weed out those already convinced of Fastow's guilt because of the "unique combination of the personal impact on this community and the extensive publicity targeting one man."

Thousands of employees lost their jobs and retirement accounts and investors lost billions of dollars when Enron collapsed and its stock became virtually worthless.

The team led by John W. Keker, who defended Silicon Valley banker Frank Quattrone in an obstruction of justice trial that ended in a mistrial in October, didn't specify a city to which they wanted Fastow's trial moved. But they noted Hoyt had the freedom to move it far beyond the purview of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to avoid biased jurors. The 5th Circuit covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Prosecutors responded that despite the defense's polls, the 13-county area from which a Houston jury would be chosen has 4.7 million residents _ enough to believe that impartial jurors can be selected. They said a detailed jury questionnaire can help lawyers eliminate obviously biased jurors before questioning begins.

And publicity would follow Fastow wherever the trial takes place, prosecutors said.

The judge overseeing Lea Fastow's case last month rejected her request for a venue change, saying detailed questionnaires and extensive questioning of a jury panel will weed out biased jurors. She is slated to go to trial Feb. 10 on charges of conspiracy and filing false tax forms for allegedly participating in some of her husband's schemes.