GOODBYE TO CHICAGO
With his sentencing, the shrivelling of Conrad Black’s life is almost complete. But the most spectacular shrinkage is his former company.
“Mr. Black, you have committed very serious crimes,” began Judge Amy St. Eve. “Mr. Black, you have violated your duty to Hollinger International and its sharehold-
ers... In the United States,
Mr. Black, there is equal justice under the law...”
“Mr. Black” this, “Mr. Black” that. I don’t recall quite such ostentatious mistering when Her Honour, later that afternoon, sentenced the star perp’s three co-conspirators. But for the Rt. Hon. the Lord Black of Crossharbour, OC, PC, standing before her like any other prisoner, Judge St. Eve seemed at pains to emphasize that foreign baubles from distant potentates counted for naught in the Northern District of Illinois—except insofar as their irrelevance underlined how far he’d fallen. “I frankly cannot understand,” she told him, “how somebody of your stature—on top of the media empire that you were on top of— could engage in the conduct that you engaged in, and put everything at risk, including your reputation and your integrity.”
For the Count of Monte Cristo, the cell door slammed instantly. For the Baron of Crossharbour, confinement has been gradual but remorseless. First came the sale of the Park Avenue apartment, then the abandonment of his beloved London, the retreat to Toronto, his trial in Chicago, a period under “resort arrest” (as a friend of mine put it) in Palm Beach, and beginning on March 3 six years in federal prison in Coleman, Fla. For his enemies, the shrivelling of his life is almost complete. Way back at the end of last winter, when the trial began, a few of us looked at the big guy in the nondescript windowless room on the 12th floor of the Everett Dirksen federal building and remarked that simply appearing in court diminishes a man. For the sentencing, with the snows of a new winter already on the ground, Conrad Black seemed even more cut off from the world he knew. His latest lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, read out virtually the entire transcript from both Conrad’s appearance on the CBC’s The
Rick Mercer Report and a less congenial quizzing by the BBC’s John Humphrys, and submitted letters on his client’s behalf from Elton John, Rush Limbaugh and Brian Mulroney. But, exotic as these turns were to the court stenographer, they rang like testimonials from members of a club you’ll never again belong to. In his syndicated column, William F. Buckley, Jr., Conrad’s old pal and my boss at America’s National Review, wrote that, along with hundreds of others, he’d been asked by the defence team to pen a few words in mitigation of the convicted man’s sentence, and that this had been “a painful commission for friends of Conrad Black.” For many south of the border, it seemed less “painful” than distasteful: a ruined man who doesn’t have the good grace to cease tugging at your sleeve and bugger off into obscurity.
Yet, if Conrad is smaller, so too is the crime. The usurper management at Hollinger had told shareholders they were demanding oneand-a-quarter billion dollars back from Black’s “corporate kleptocracy.” When the court threw out the racketeering claim, that came down to half-a-billion. By the time the criminal charges were filed, the Justice Department was alleging a heist of a mere $84 million. By the opening day of the trial, the government had reduced it to $60 million. And on Dec. 10, Conrad Black was sentenced for stealing $6.1 million—or about half-a-per-cent ofwhat Hollinger’s “special committee” was claiming at the height of its anti-Black hysteria. Hold that thought: a $6.1-million “theft” on asset sales of over three billion. If you were a realtor or car salesman, that “crime” would be called a one per cent sales commission. Instead, Black’s ill-gotten booty represents about 10 per cent of what he’s spent on lawyers. And God knows what percentage of what the U.S. government has spent hounding him. Or about two per cent of what his successors at Hollinger have spent investigating him.
As their case shrunk around them, the U.S. attorney’s office called ever more vehemently for a long, long, loooooooong sentence. Okay, maybe the original quarter of a millennium or whatever the original charges stacked up
to was no longer viable, the accused having been acquitted on three-quarters of the counts. But Eric Sussman, for the United States government, still insisted to the end that justice required Conrad Black to die in prison. At the dawn of Sentencing Day, he was relentless in his demand for the judge to throw the book at Black—preferably a really big one, like the defendant’s biography of Duplessis. Why, the convicted felon had shown no remorse whatsoever for his crimes; he had demonstrated “contempt” and “disdain” for the process; and furthermore, he had had the effrontery to call the prosecutors “Nazis.” Even more outrageous to prosecutor Sussman, the criminal Black, asked for his thoughts
on his impending incarceration, had replied in a tone of amused ennui that frankly prison would be a bit of a bore. Reaching the heights of his peroration, the government’s lead attorney began querying Conrad’s alleged friendship with Sir Elton—or “Sir John,” as he referred to him. “Ask yourself,” he urged the judge, “does Elton John really know Conrad Black?” With so much of the mail fraud and wire fraud having gone belly up, Mr. Sussman was now reduced to gay fraud, the new federal offence of falsely claiming friendship with elderly rock knights.
Let me address this particular accusation. Despite the frequent claims that Black would interfere with the editorial integrity of his
newspapers, the only time I ever came under any proprietorial pressure was a decade or so back, when I was asked to do a profile of Sir Elton for the Sunday Telegraph in London. I sloughed off the usual hack job full of cheap jokes and later that day got a call from the editor politely inquiring if I wouldn’t mind easing up on the multitude of gags about the chubby old queen surrounded by his “f—in’ pathetic porcelain collection” (as Mick Jagger described it), because Elton happened to be a personal friend of the chairman. The only thing more f—in’ pathetic than Elt’s porcelain collection was the assistant district attorney deciding to devote the climax of his presentation to questioning the old dearie’s acquaintanceship with Conrad. Mr. Sussman is an extraordinarily petty man, and he rendered his own case petty, too.
And, of course, the most spectacular shrinkage of all has occurred at Black’s company, or what’s left of it. When the corporate kleptocrat stepped down as chairman four years ago, Hollinger’s stock price was 20 bucks. As I write, the renamed Sun-Times Media Group is at $1.20. The only money any investor’s made since the old gang was evicted came from the sale of the Telegraph Group to the Barclay brothers—which was essentially Conrad’s last deal and nothing to do with the usurper regime. If you’re interested to know how the shareholders are doing now that the Black cabal isn’t milking the company dry, well, why not ask K Capital Partners of Boston? Just six months ago, their investment in Sun-Times Media was worth $34 million. Today, it’s worth $7 million. Nevertheless, the Chicago Sun-Times took time off from its latest $40 million of budget-slashing to gloat over its chairman’s downfall. “We don’t make a habit of kicking people when they’re down,” declared its editorial, before attempting to do just that. Their failure to pull it off derived less from the club-footed prose and naked appeal to class envy (“We would have been happier had St. Eve not allowed Black
So much of the mail and wire fraud had gone belly up, Mr. Sussman was reduced to gay fraud
to keep his Florida Mansion”) than in the fact that it’s very difficult to kick a chap when he’s down if you yourself happen to be prone. Michael Cooke, the Sun-Times’ editor, visited the courtroom from time to time, and early in the trial I reintroduced him to his old boss. “Hullo, guv’nor,” he greeted Black. I suggested to him that he have dinner with Conrad one night and he said he’d have
loved to but the new management had expressly forbidden any contact. I rolled my eyes. Still, one’s sympathies only go so far. Any editor-in-chief worth his title, if unable to prevent the board’s imposition of such an editorial, would have at least demanded that it be less crappy and graceless. No doubt when the share price has fallen from a bucktwenty to 50 cents, they’ll still be blaming Conrad. (Full disclosure: I parted company with the Sun-Times when the publisher, who’s since decamped to the CBC, spiked my column on the trial.)
What was it all for? To read the press, Black deserved to be convicted for his arrogance, his wife and his peerage. One could hardly fault a man for being reluctant to express remorse for at least one of those. And, for all the feds’ indignation on the subject, one might as well ask why the prosecution didn’t express remorse for bringing all the charges on which the defendants were acquitted, or for confiscating $9 million from the sale of the Blacks’ Park Avenue apartment.
When prosecutor Sussman was finished complaining about Elton John, Conrad Black stepped forward to address the court for the first time. “I do wish to express very profound regret and sadness,” he said—and on the media benches we all leaned forward for what we assumed would be some pro forma contrition and abasement. But no: “I do wish to express very profound regret and sadness at the severe hardship inflicted upon all of the shareholders, including a great many employees, by the evaporation of $1.85 billion of shareholder value under my successors.”
And that was it: Conrad Black “expressed remorse” for the leeches and mediocrities unable to run the business they stole from him. And Judge Amy declined to punish him for it. She gave him the minimum sentence within her guidelines, ordered him to pay restitution of $6.1 million, refused the prosecution’s request to seize the Palm Beach house, and instructed the government to return the nine million bucks from the Park Avenue sale. A federal prosecutor unconnected with this case said to me: “Did you hear Black’s statement? Wasn’t that amazing?” Before sentencing, one of his lordship’s (soon to be former) lawyers was going around telling folks that “anything more than four [years], he can blame on his big mouth.” But, in fact, Her Honour pretty much discounted the big mouth. He was never going to throw himself Peter Atkinson-style (and a fat lot of good it did him) on the mercy of the court, and Judge Amy seemed instinctively to understand that, with the House of
Lords gone, and the Daily Telegraph, and the A-list Rolodex full of presidents and prime ministers, all that Conrad Black has left is his “big mouth”—or, to put it another way, his belief in his innocence. “We have the verdicts we have and we can’t retry this case,” he drawled, which is as near as he came to conceding that he is, technically, a felon. “I would say, however, very emphatically, that I have never once uttered one disrespectful word about this Court, your Honour personally, the jurors or the process.”
I think, broadly, that that’s true. Conrad Black has demonstrated an almost naive faith in the process. By contrast, his partner
The judge seemed to understand all Black has left now is his 'big mouth'
David Radler’s plea agreement reflected only a cool calculation that the odds in the U.S. justice system were dramatically stacked against anyone foolish enough not to settle. Conrad can’t confess to what he believes he didn’t do. He wants vindication, preferably by the system but, if that cannot be, then by posterity.
At the beginning of the trial, David Olive of the Toronto Star referred to me as one of Black’s “retainers.” Alas, no. My “loyalty” to my old boss brings no financial rewards and cost me my gig at the Sun-Times. Covering the trial took me away from more lucrative duties such as book promotion. I don’t know why my sucking up for no conceivable benefit to a former benefactor is any more discreditable than Michael Cooke sucking up to his current benefactor for the sake of his mortgage. But, sitting in court day after day, I found my objection to this trial hardening. It’s not merely the procedural advantages the prosecution enjoys—the inducements it’s able to dangle in order to turn witnesses that, if offered by the defence, would be regarded as the suborning of perjury; or the confiscation of assets intended to prevent an accused person from being able to mount a defence; or the piling on of multiple charges which virtually guarantees that a jury will seek to demonstrate its balanced judgment by convicting on something. All that speaks very poorly for the federal justice system.
But, beyond that, I simply couldn’t see the crime. When Conrad fell, I could sort of understand the argument advanced by friends— that, even if it wasn’t illegal, he shouldn’t have done it. Did he, personally, deserve the “non-compete” fees he received in the CanWest and other sales of Hollinger properties? Well, look at the fate of the group without him. No purchaser of the Chicago Sun-Times will ever pay a non-compete fee to the septuagenarian banana marketer currently pre-
siding over its express elevator ride to pennystock status. To the proposition that Conrad did not merit those non-competes, the postBlack fate of the company is the best riposte: quod erat demonstrandum.
If only the Blacks had been just a little bit nicer to people, tutted Sarah Sands, my old editor in London. Well, they were certainly very nice to Sarah, and it doesn’t seem to have earned them much goodwill. Contrary to popular belief, not least from Maclean’s readers, I was never one of the champagneswiggers at the swanky parties. I’m a reclusive type who hardly ever comes down from the hills from one decade to the next. I liked
Conrad Black not because he sat me next to Princess Michael of Kent at dinner but because he knew how to run a newspaper. The last time I saw him before the sentencing, he was discussing one of his successors—whether in Britain, Canada or Australia, I forget. “You have to have a feel for it,” he said, and made that cupping motion with his hand he likes to do that always looks as if he’s either fondling an unseen breast or retuning the radio away from the CBC.
Very few people “have a feel for it.” Tweedy Browne and the other mutinous shareholders don’t. Nor do Richard Breeden and the other $800-an-hour fancypantses living high off the Hollinger hog’s corpse. Nor do the banana guy and his flailing lieutenants at the Sun-Times. Nor the celebrity directors who
turned against Black, nor the regulators, nor the courts, nor the FBI agents and postal inspectors and other bit players in the prosecutorial chorus line who sat there in the 12th-floor courtroom day after day, month after month. It would have been better for Hollinger’s shareholders and newspaper readers around the world had Conrad Black remained in charge. And, if you disagree, then good luck with your Sun-Times Media stock. Hollinger was Conrad Black, and Conrad Black was Hollinger.
“My life,” he said to me a while back, “is now desperately boring”—in the sense that, even if you see off Eric Sussman’s charges on Barbara’s birthday party, it doesn’t exactly afford the same satisfaction as saving Britain from the European Union or launching a conservative revival in Canada. And, what-
ever happens in the future, Conrad Black is unlikely ever again to be running any flagship newspapers, which is what he does best. Yet he presses on—to the next stage, to the appeal, and, if necessary, to jail. One morning, just before the verdict, when the defendant looked especially wan and haggard, I thought: this guy won’t survive prison; it’ll kill him, and very quick. But on reflection I reckon, if it comes to it, he’ll last his 5V2 years in order to deny his tormentors their victory. Channelling Elton John, the SunTimes quipped of Black’s court statement that “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” A reader in Illinois wrote to me to suggest that, after the last four years, a more appropriate number would be “I’m Still Standing.” He is. M