A NOT-GUILTY VERDICT WILL UNLEASH A FIRESTORM OF RETRIBUTION
IF HE WINS...
A NOT-GUILTY VERDICT WILL UNLEASH A FIRESTORM OF RETRIBUTION • BY JASON KIRBY
It's not just that Conrad Black thinks he will walk out of that courtroom in Chicago a free man. His belief in his eventual acquittal is absolute. It has fuelled his every defiant statement, legal volley and confident gesture in the leadup to his trial. But for Black, victory is a two-step process. A not-guilty verdict alone won’t suffice. No, true retribution will only come once he has rained vengeance down on every sniping gadfly to cross his lordship over the last four years.
If Black wins, he has promised a reign of terror on his opponents that will make the firebombing of Dresden look like a backyard barbecue. He has already filed seven defamation lawsuits, say his lawyers, claiming more than $2 billion in damages. Black has turned his guns on the special committee at the SunTimes Media Group (formerly Hollinger International), on its high-profile board of directors, including former friends like Henry Kissinger, and on Tom Bower, the British author of a scathing biography. Last fall, in a rebuttal to the book, Black described his plight as a three-part act. Act One was the official, but not moral, downfall of him and his wife Barbara Amiel Black. Act Two, the court battle, is set to start March 14. “What are the Boweresque pestilences going to do in Act Three, when I have won?” he wrote. “They may not wish to think of that now, but in a few months it will be our turn, and they will be thinking of little else.”
“If he gets acquitted, it’s very powerful,” says Julian Porter, a Toronto libel lawyer. “Most of the writing I have seen is quite conclusive that he is guilty.” Porter said Bower’s book, Conrad & Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, would be on the shakiest ground despite the author’s boasts that he has never been successfully sued. But even the special committee report, which accused Black of carrying out a “corporate kleptocracy,” could come back to haunt the company. “The committee obviously had a duty to write a report, and to write what they thought was true,” says Porter. “But the question is, did they have the right to distribute it to the world?” Expect to see a rash of libel suit settlements if Black wins his criminal case. That’s because the insurance companies backing the defen-
dants may push for a quick resolution rather than risk a costly fight.
Even so, firing off lawsuits isn’t going to fully replenish Black’s depleted finances. Despite all those zeros in his claims for damages, the most he can realistically expect to be awarded in Canada is about $1.5 million per suit. Most settlements are reached for far less. It’s not the money Black will be after, though. It’s the apology. And lo, he will make them grovel.
A victory in Chicago may strengthen Black’s hand in his libel suits. The reality is, though, his troubles would be far from over. Regard-
less of the outcome in Chicago, the Securities and Exchange Commission is likely to resume its civil lawsuit against Black. For example, Richard Scrushy, the former HealthSouth chief executive, was acquitted of fraud charges in 2005, but the SEC has launched a US$800-million suit against him that goes to trial in April. “Just because Black is found not guilty, doesn’t mean he’s innocent,” says Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “This could entangle him for the rest of his life.”
Nor will Black easily overcome the stigma of having gone up against U.S. law enforcement, says Bill Bartmann. He should know. Bartmann’s company, Commercial Financial Services, imploded in the late 1990s. He was charged with 53 counts of fraud. In 2003, after a four-year investigation and threemonth trial, a jury acquitted him. “It’s a wonderful thing to be acquitted of something you knew you didn’t do,” he says. “But your finances are in shambles. And now you’re left with a very tarnished reputation. It’s like walking around with a scarlet letter. Even though you’ve been acquitted, to most people
it implies you ‘got off’ because the jury made a mistake.” Bartmann says Black will have already learned who his true friends are, having seen so many past acquaintances scurry into the darkness. After being acquitted, some people sheepishly crawled back into his life. “You come to appreciate how few friends you have,” says Bartmann. “And how few you really need.”
HE HAS ALREADY FILED SEVEN LAWSUITS WORTH MORE THAN $2 BILLION
As for Black’s future endeavours should he avoid prison, he has given a few hints. “When it’s all over I’ll write about it and it’ll be an eye-opener to a lot of people,” he told Maclean’s. “And I’ll just write about how the system works—not too much about my personal life.” In 2005, the former proprietor of one of the world’s largest newspaper chains told Fortune magazine that “when we get to that happy day, I will throw myself like a college freshman on orientation day into finding new ventures and opportunities.”
That is, after he’s finished grinding his onetime accusers into the dirt. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.