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Money-Laundering Trial of Silberman Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sporting new eyeglasses that softened his appearance and looking relaxed and confident, San Diego businessman Richard T. Silberman watched his trial on charges of money-laundering open Tuesday with a short session devoted to jury selection.

“I’m glad it’s finally started,” Silberman said after a two-hour hearing during which U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving welcomed 200 potential jurors, asked them to fill out a 17-page questionnaire on the case, and sent them home.

Silberman, 61, who was a top aide to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., is charged with laundering $300,000 in cash that an undercover FBI agent allegedly characterized as the proceeds of Colombian drug trafficking. His trial is expected to last six weeks.

If convicted, he could face 75 years in prison and a $1.5-million fine.

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In a steady stream of pretrial activity over the past three months, Irving rejected every significant defense effort to strike any of the seven counts against Silberman. In February, purportedly prompted by an adverse ruling, Silberman tried to kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

With the substance of the trial not likely to begin until next week, when the lawyers are due to deliver their opening statements and begin questioning witnesses, the first day’s business centered on housekeeping matters--as well as appearances and first impressions.

Before the session started, Silberman--wearing his new tortoise-shell glasses, in place of wire-rimmed models--was met on the sidewalk outside the courthouse by about a dozen friends and relatives.

While television cameras rolled, he hugged each of them, one by one, then walked into the building holding hands with his wife, San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding.

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Irving introduced Silberman to the crowd of jurors, who filled virtually every seat in a large courtroom often used for special occasions. In a firm voice, Silberman made his only other comment of the day, telling the crowd in a voice heard around the room without a microphone: “Good morning.”

As a preliminary matter, the judge asked if any of the people who had been summoned had already been so influenced by the extensive press coverage of the case that they could not be fair. No one raised a hand.

Irving then distributed the questionnaire, which asked the same question as well as 57 others. Among the issues addressed by the survey, which was prepared jointly by prosecutors and defense lawyers, were age, address, reading habits, main sources of news and whether a person maintained a foreign bank account.

Prosecutors contend that Silberman directed two transactions--one for $100,000, the other for $200,000, funds allegedly sent around the world, including to Hong Kong and Switzerland--in exchange for stocks and bonds.

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The questionnaire also asked the potential jurors to search through a list of people--names that “may come up during the trial"--and identify if they had “any connection” to any of the people listed.

Most of the names were FBI agents and personnel at various banks through which prosecutors say they will prove the money was laundered. But among the names, which sprawled across five of the 17 pages, were California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and area businessmen Carlos Bustamante and Christopher Sickels.

After Silberman was arrested April 7, 1989, in a Mission Bay hotel room, he reportedly volunteered information about Brown, Bustamante and Sickels, according to federal court documents. The documents, however, do not mention what Silberman may have said about each or any of them.

Bustamante and Sickels are among a list of possible witnesses that defense lawyers, in a document filed last month with the court, indicated they may call. Brown is not on the list.

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Among the names missing from the questionnaire is Werner Wenger, a Swiss attorney who controlled a Hong Kong bank account that prosecutors claim was instrumental in the laundering scheme. Wenger is not on a list of either possible defense or prosecution witnesses.


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