The Good Guy Goes Down

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The press corps at the Conrad Black trial split on whether Black should, or would, be convicted of anything. In the end the prosecution got him on 4 counts out of 13--including the biggie, obstruction of justice, which was about some boxes of papers he removed from his office in Toronto. Toronto's in another country with courts and prosecutors of its own--but whatever. The law is slapdash in its majesty. No matter how guilty you think Black was of rigging sales contracts to line his pockets, you have to think David Radler's guiltier. But because Radler was so guilty he knew it and made a deal with the prosecution, he's facing 29 months in prison and Black as much as 35 years.

The jury convicted everybody, and the shocker was Mark Kipnis, Hollinger International's in-house lawyer in Chicago. Kipnis had the best lawyer in the trial, Ron Safer, he wasn't cut in on any piece of those notorious noncompete payments that Radler and Black made millions from, and so far as the press could see, his only crime was acting like a lawyer. In a sympathetic profile of Kipnis the Tribune published during the trial Susan Chandler quoted this zinger from a prosecutor's opening statement: "If there is a document to be signed to complete this scheme, you'll see that Mark Kipnis has a pen." For that pen in his pocket, Kipnis was nailed for three counts of mail fraud.

"Everybody at this company who knew him was pulling for him," Ted Rilea told me after the verdicts were announced. Rilea is the attorney in charge of labor negotiations for Hollinger's Chicago Group, which is now the Sun-Times Media Group. Everybody? I said. Does that include everyone who thanks God the specter of an acquitted and vengeful Black will no longer ruin their sleep? (Sun-Times stock jumped 2.5 percent with the verdict.) "I mean everybody," Rilea said. "Those I'm talking about include some of the union leaders. Jerry Minkkinen would tell you the same thing." 

Minkkinen's the executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and he got to know Kipnis when Kipnis sat in on the contract negotiations of 1998 and 2001. When Rilea and Kipnis had dinner together a couple of nights ago, Rilea gave him a message: Jerry says good luck--he's keeping his fingers crossed. Kipnis was feeling hopeful that evening because earlier in the day the jury had reported it was deadlocked on some of the charges. Kipnis let himself imagine a mistrial. But Judge Amy St. Eve told the jurors to go back and deliberate some more, and so they did.

I found Minkkinen in Toronto attending the Communication Workers of America convention, and even though the Black verdict was nonstop radio and TV up there, Minkkinen had been in meetings all day and was out of touch. Four guilty counts for Black, I said. "Whatever he got he deserves more," Minkkinen replied. 

Three counts for Kipnis.

"It just saddens me tremendously," Minkkinen said. "Whether we agreed or not, I always had a great deal of respect for Mark Kipnis. I always thought he was a straight shooter. He was one who understood you could have disagreement without unpleasantness. I respected that." He particularly admired Kipnis for conducting himself honorably while representing Radler. "It's hard for anyone to imagine the circumstances under which people worked on the management side under the Radler regime," Minkkinen said. "He would brook no dissension or compromise from his minions. Radler was clearly the driving force in all those negotiations. From my perspective, he had no interest in the newspaper except as a vehicle to make money."

I asked if he ever wondered why Kipnis and Rilea didn't quit. "Yeah, quite frankly," Minkkinen said. "It had to be a very very difficult environment." 

Rilea was on Kipnis's witness list. He expects to be called as a character witness before Kipnis is sentenced in November. "I wish you'd have known him," said Rilea, speaking of his friend as one speaks of the deceased. "You'd have liked him." 

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