GREENBELT, Md. -- A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed one of 12 jurors who have been deliberating for days in the case of an Israeli woman charged with orchestrating a scheme to defraud tens of thousands of investors out of tens of millions of dollars.
The dismissed juror told U.S. District Judge George Hazel that he overhead somebody making disparaging remarks about the defendant, 38-year-old Lee Elbaz, while visiting an unspecified "local establishment" on Sunday.
Hazel denied a request by Elbaz's attorney to declare a mistrial. An alternate replaced the juror. The judge instructed jurors to start their deliberations "from scratch."
Jurors already had been deliberating for roughly 20 hours since they began last Thursday.
Elbaz was CEO of Yukom Communications, an Israel-based company. She was charged in Maryland with conspiring with employees under her supervision to bilk investors across the globe through the sale and marketing of financial instruments known as "binary options." She trained employees to lie to investors and rigged the odds against them making and recouping any money, Justice Department prosecutor Rush Atkinson said during the trial's closing arguments last week.
Elbaz's defense attorney, Barry Pollack, told jurors that his client never crossed a line between "selling" and committing fraud.
Elbaz is charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Hazel said the now-dismissed juror overheard a conversation in which somebody speaking partially in Hebrew seemed to be describing Elbaz as a "bad person and other words to that effect." The juror also heard a suggestion that "something was missing from the case" that had been presented in the courtroom.
The juror told Hazel he had been leaning toward voting to acquit Elbaz "but that hearing those comments had changed his mind," the judge said.
The juror told the judge that he didn't mention the encounter to any other jurors after deliberations resumed Monday. The juror waited until Tuesday morning to report the incident to the court. Hazel said he questioned the other 11 jurors and is satisfied they didn't hear anything about it.
"I am completely confident that no one other than the juror (who heard the comments) was ever made aware of that communication," the judge said.
Elbaz is one of 15 defendants in the case and the first to be tried. Five have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Nine others were indicted in February.
FBI agents arrested Elbaz in September 2017 after she traveled to New York.
The binary options market largely operates outside the U.S. through unregulated websites. The payout on a binary option typically is linked to whether the price of a particular asset, such as a stock, rises above or falls below a specified amount at a particular time, at which point the investor receives either a pre-determined amount of cash or nothing.
Yukom provided sales and marketing services for BinaryBook and BigOption, the brand names for internet-based businesses that purportedly sold and marketed binary options. A separate indictment against nine other defendants, including Yukom owner Yosef Herzog, says the scheme involving BinaryBook and BigOption cost investors more than $145 million worldwide, including thousands of victims in the U.S.