THE BARBARA FACTOR: WHETHER SHE’S IN COURT OR NOT, LADY BLACK WILL BE A DISTRACTION
THE BARBARA FACTOR: WHETHER SHE’S IN COURT OR NOT, LADY BLACK WILL BE A DISTRACTION • BY ANNE KINGSTON
The one safe wager to be made about the Conrad Black trial is that his wife won't show up toting a Hermès Birkin bag. Not that she doesn't have a supply from which to choose. When Barbara Amiel took Vogue on an expedition through her closets in 2002—an outing that prompted her infamous claim, “my extravagance knows no bounds”—she showed off more than a dozen versions of the bag that retails for $5,000 and up. But ever since Martha Stewart carried one to her insider-trading trial in 2004, eliciting a barrage of tsk-tsking for flaunting her wealth, the Birkin has been a courtroom no-no. Boasting one would be provocative. And that is the last thing Lady Black can now afford.
Amiel’s shopping habits, along with her role as a director and board member of Hollinger, are fundamental underpinnings of the government’s case against her husband. The prosecution plans to play them up; and the defence will try to minimize them. Amiel’s spending will be introduced to buttress the government’s allegation that the publicly held Hollinger International was the personal “Bank of Conrad Black.” The jury will learn that Black’s corporate expense reports included charges for $2,463 handbags and $140 for “jogging attire for Mrs. BB.” The couple will be portrayed living large on Hollinger’s dimejaunting to Bora Bora on the corporate jet, billing the company $2,785 for opera tickets, celebrating Amiel’s 60th birthday with a $62,870 party at a swish restaurant for which Hollinger paid two-thirds. Lady Black will be painted a couture-clad Lady Macbeth whose craving for status and influence propelled her husband to overreach financially and drove him into the glamorous, costly world of celebrity and minor royalty.
Black’s lawyers vigorously tried to keep
Amiel’s spending—and her—out of the proceedings: “Injecting Mrs. Black into the trial would be unnecessary to any real issue in this case and would result in a circus-like sideshow,” they submitted. To do so “threatens the return of the verdict for the wrong rea-
sons.” Their concern is understandable. Juries may not grasp all of the numbing intricacies of non-compete agreements, but a beautiful, profligate, socially ambitious wife they get. Who recalls the details of financial larceny at Tyco? But who can forget the US$2.2million Sardinian birthday party former CEO Dennis Kozlowski threw for his wife—half paid for by the company—featuring a vodka-peeing ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David?
The only thing more conspicuous than Amiel’s presence at the trial, of course, would
be her absence. Defence lawyers typically want a loving family in the courtroom to humanize the accused and make him sympathetic. “She has to show up every day,” says Daniel Horowitz, an Oakland, Calif., attorney. “All she has to do is sit there and look at her husband with love.” Black’s lawyer Edward Greenspan says the Martha Stewart case is being used as a model; the defence will monitor the coverage of Amiel’s clothing and facial expressions: “We’ll test the waters and see if it’s a distraction.”
That said, Greenspan doesn’t rule out Amiel taking the stand in her husband’s defence. (Spousal immunity protects her from being called by the prosecution.) Doing so, though, is a huge risk in that it could subject her to a hammering by the prosecution. It would also signal a desperate defence willing to court a “circus sideshow.”
Amiel, a regular columnist for this magazine, won’t speak
publicly about the trial. Black contends his wife is up to the scrutiny. “She’s a big girl,” he says. He doesn’t know whether or not she’ll attend every day. “It’s up to her, but
I don’t know if she wants to sit through all of the evidence. I’m sure she’ll put in an appearance from time to time to show the flag.” His elder son and daughter will be there, he volunteers. “They’re coming out of solidarity, not out of any attempt to impress the jury that I have a family.”
jury I a family.” As for Amiel’s courtroom garb, a trip to Talbot’s isn’t necessarily in order. “You can show money,” says Horowitz. “Because if you don’t, it looks like you’re hiding it.” It’s a fine balance, says John Coffee, a securities law professor at Columbia University. “I don’t say you want to make her invisible, but you’d want to make her less than the fashion plate.” That, of course, presents the notoriously fashionable Amiel with a challenge. Dominick Dunne, a social acquaintance of the Blacks, has little doubt she’ll pull it off. “I think she’ll be a stalwart figure in the courtroom,” he predicts, “elegantly dressed and dramatically loyal to her husband.” M
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