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Trial opens for aides of NYC mayoral hopeful

Tom Hays, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Jurors are set to hear opening statements Monday in the conspiracy case involving political donations to a candidate seeking to become New York City's first Asian-American mayor.

City Comptroller John Liu has not been charged and is not expected to testify at his ex-aides' trial in federal court in Manhattan. But the trial could complicate his bid for higher office in what's turning into a hotly contested mayoral race.

The trial also comes less than two weeks after prosecutors in Manhattan unleashed one of their broadest attacks ever on political corruption by bringing conspiracy charges against a state senator, a state assemblyman and a city councilman, among others. The assemblyman was accused of trying to bribe his way onto the mayoral ballot.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has warned that political corruption had become "downright pervasive" in the state.

Liu's ex-campaign treasurer, Jia "Jenny" Hou, and former Liu fundraiser Xing "Oliver" Wu Pan are facing federal charges of conspiring to break campaign finance laws. Federal prosecutors say the two circumvented a $4,950 contribution limit by using straw donors — people whose contributions are reimbursed by others — so they could boost the Democrat's campaign war chest.

Both Hou, of Queens, and Pan, of Hudson County, N.J., have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and attempted wire fraud; Hou also has pleaded not guilty to obstructing justice and making false statements. They have claimed they were caught in the cross-hairs of an overzealous investigation of Liu's campaign finances.

The trial, likely to last several weeks, comes as campaigning gears up in the race to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cannot run for a fourth term. Liu is considered a longshot in a field including front-runner City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and several Republicans.

As the trial loomed, the 46-year-old Liu has not avoided the subject, sometimes joking that his nickname is "embattled comptroller."

Each count against Hou and Pan carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.