Conrad Black speaks — and writes | Bleader

Conrad Black speaks — and writes


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Conrad Black emerging from prison a broken man — that's a prospect as tragic as it is unlikely. In his own mind he is beyond reproach, and in his own mind he is free. Good for him. The world needs more shining examples of the human capacity to sneer at profound personal humiliation.

The last few days have seen Black — the fallen media baron who in better days was CEO of Hollinger International when it owned the Chicago Sun-Times and much more besides — return to prison to serve out the 13 months remaining on what was originally a 78-month sentence given him in 2007 for fraud and obstruction of justice. Black served 29 months and then the Supreme Court overturned two of the three fraud counts on what I —but not he — would call technicalities. Black, free for 13 months on appeal, was resentenced to 42 months in prison.

And recent days have seen Black sue his former Hollinger business partner, David Radler, for self-dealing in one of the subsidiary properties they controlled, Horizon Publications. But there is surely much more than that motivating Black: Radler pleaded guilty to a single charge and testified against Black at the 2007 trial. Radler served a brief prison term and is now back in the publishing business in Canada.

And Black published his latest book, A Matter of Principle, in which, among many other things, he says what he thinks of Radler:

The fact that David Radler’s counsel had withdrawn from the joint-defence group indicated that Anton Valukas, his lawyer, thought he could really do something with Radler in Chicago as Queen for a Day—the colloquial term for the procedure of exploring what deal a target might make with the prosecutors. I was disgusted and filled with revulsion that I had spent as long as I had in business with Radler . . . I should have been more suspicious of his endless grabbing for money and his disparagement of public companies. Once I had seen this, my plan was to let the private newspaper companies he had spun out of Hollinger International ripen and then trade some of my shareholdings in them for Radler’s Ravelston shares. I didn’t have the means to buy him out earlier without taking on debt I preferred to avoid. This was a mistake. Time had run out on that plan, as on much else.

Radler thought he was the sole architect of our financial success and the only one of us who had any idea how to run a business. He told anyone who would listen that I was the social face of our business while he was the real business brains. His fear, exposed by the ordeal of the legal crisis, for which he was largely responsible as head of the division where they originated, seemed to have produced a bitter and galling response that he smarmily concealed in discussion between us.

You can read more from A Matter of Principle in this excerpt provided by Maclean's magazine. Maclean's tells us Black calls his the story of “the ludicrous demise of my great love affair with America,” and allows that “My pride and haughty spirit were of the nature that often leads to a fall. My prison number, 18330-424, is stamped on my clothes and mandatory on all correspondence. I am 65 years old. I entered these walls a baron of the United Kingdom.” Am I alone in sensing a certain vanity on Black's part about how far he had to fall and how little he whimpered on hitting bottom.

Maclean's comments, "Less a prison memoir than an exhaustive litany of persecutions—at turns fun, cutting, bitchy, boring and surprisingly tender—A Matter of Principle everywhere offers more proof of Black’s discomfort with any power not wielded by Black himself. He refers to the U.S. criminal justice system as a'“prosecutocracy,' engages in a lengthy comparison of America’s plea bargain system with the self-condemnations of Stalinist Russia, and calls the country’s legal system in general “the ugliest and nastiest American face of all.”

And the magazine observes, "Black’s talent for self-dramatization lends the story verve—for example when his treatment at the hands of federal prosecutors becomes a measure of his Catholic faith: 'I had long believed the Jesuit formulation that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,' he says. Of his recently dashed chance at proving his detractors wrong and, at his final hearing in June, of remaining free, he describes Judge Amy St. Eve, 'robotically pretend[ing] that there were incontestable convictions in the case,' and adds: 'I don’t think she believed any of it at the weary end of the long case . . . but was committed to the script, and some of counsel thought she might still imagine I was guilty of something.' No wonder he waited to publish."

On the eve of disappearing back behind bars, Black, now 67, gave interviews to Canadian media — forever fascinated with their nation's most famous expatriate. (Black renounced Canadian citizenship in order to enter Britain's House of Lords.) In his conversation with Maclean's Kenneth Whyte, he insists the videotape of him removing documents from his office in Toronto — the basis for the obstruction-of-justice charge — captured something that was totally innocent:

The famous picture of my pointing at the camera was that I was saying to my assistant and my driver that I certainly wanted to make sure this was all captured on film because I didn’t want any suggestion of anything surreptitious happening. Even though I technically owned the building where I had had my office for 27 years, one of the Toronto courts said I had to leave the building. We had six business days left, my assistant put some things in boxes, and had asked them to be moved, and then there was an intervention asking that they not be moved from the representative of the court-appointed inspector. So when I arrived later on in the day I spoke to the acting president of the company who said, “That’s fine to move it,” after questioning my assistant about the contents. I knew nothing about the contents, I just asked her if they contravened the order that we were under, and they didn’t. And in fact, everything in there was either totally personal or it was business-related and had already been handed over in complete compliance to five different subpoenas for documents from the United States. Every page we had in there had already been copied and sent away, and so it was a totally innocuous act.

Whyte asks Black what his worst moment was in prison.

The worst was when the Court of Appeal in Chicago so cavalierly treated our case. We had a very strong appeal, as was ultimately demonstrated by the Supreme Court of the United States, and the chairman of the appellant panel would not allow my counsel to finish a sentence. It was the most disgraceful thing I have seen in a court in a serious country. I didn’t actually see it, but I heard the audio and I read the transcript. And it reminded me—not to be tendentious here—but it reminded me of these news films of the Nazi People’s Court after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July of 1944, where Judge Freisler shouted at the prisoner. It was a fantastic spectacle in what is generally a distinguished jurisdiction in Chicago and it was obvious that we had no chance in that court.

The chairman of the appellate panel was Richard Posner, who called Black's appeal "ridiculous" and "preposterous." Only if the legal doctrine of honest services fraud — a doctrine presented to the jury as an added reason to convict Black — were knocked down by the Supreme Court, would the appeal have a leg to stand on, Posner wrote. That happened, and Black's case wound up back before Posner (to Black's consternation), who wrote that the appellate court regarded the changed circumstances as "warranting — barely — a retrial" on two of the fraud counts.

What I've always regretted about the Black affair is that he's spoken magnificently in his own defense everywhere but in court, where his lawyers told him to keep his mouth shut and he did. What he says now is not far from what I imagined him saying then, to the jury. Does a jury ever turn against a defendant out of a surly notion that it didn't get its money's worth?