Toni Dixon, 51, of Atlantic City unknown

MAYS LANDING - A defendant in an upcoming voter fraud trial has been accused of coaching a witness on how to testify.

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of six people accused of illegally handling messenger ballots during Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small's failed bid in the 2009 Democratic mayoral primary.

Since Small and 13 others were arrested last September, two defendants have pleaded guilty, leaving a dozen to stand trial. Due to space limitations in the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse, the defendants have been split into two trials of six. Small is among the first group.

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But before the jurors are chosen, Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten heard several motions Monday, including one to revoke the bail of Toni Dixon, a sister of former political powerbroker Craig Callaway, who himself was recently released from prison.

Deputy Attorney General Robert Czepiel Jr. claimed Monday that Dixon, 53, visited one of the voters on the state's witness list and "advised her how to testify in the matter before the court." Dixon's attorney said she "vehemently denies" the allegation.

Attorney Ed Weinstock said he was "ambushed" Monday morning with paperwork from the Attorney General's Office making the claim. Dixon was also given a summons for third-degree witness tampering.

"My client said she never visited any witnesses," Weinstock told Batten. "The whole thing is ridiculous, to put it mildly."

Batten gave Weinstock until this morning to file a response.

Czepiel said the voter approached the state with the allegations, but Weinstock said that's not how the papers he received read. Instead, he said the woman made the claims after the state checked in with her 2½ weeks ago about her testimony in the upcoming trial. The voter's daughter also signed a statement as a witness to the alleged crime.

The trial of Small, Dixon, Floyd Tally, LuQuay Zahir, Tracy Pijuan and Thomas Quirk is expected to last about eight weeks. Jury selection alone could take two weeks. Each defendant has the right to refuse 10 jurors, and the state matches that number for each defendant. That means there could be as many as 120 potential jurors dismissed without cause. Before that, the 800 people called for jury duty in the case will go into the courthouse in several groups to answer questionnaires that will help root out those who can't serve for various reasons, including knowing any of the 760 people on what Batten termed "an ambitious witness list."

While the lists are not made public, some potential witnesses were named in court Monday, including state Sen. James Whelan - one-time mayor of Atlantic City - and George Miller, an Atlantic City attorney whose firm has backed Small candidacies financially. A pool of 80 potential jurors filled out questionnaires Monday.

All of the defendants face at least nine charges in the case. Small, Pijuan and Quirk are additionally charged with hindering prosecution for allegedly lying to investigators.

The remaining six defendants face trial some time next year. A tentative date is expected to be provided Nov. 29. Those left include former city Public Works Director David Callaway - who is already serving a state sentence for attempting to blackmail a then-sitting councilman with a sex tape. He is a brother of former Atlantic City Council President Callaway.

In 2006, a jury acquitted Small of similar charges in Bob Levy's mayoral campaign. He has said he believes this trial will have the same result.

"Obviously, today is the first day of a lengthy process," Small said outside the courtroom before Batten took the bench. "I look forward to clearing my name and my family's name. At the end of the day, the facts of the case are going to speak for themselves."

Small said he was glad to finally have the day come so he can lift the cloud that has been over his head for more than a year: "I'm ready to deal with this process so my family and I can move on with our lives."

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