So here's Conrad Black, the former Canadian and present British lord, in the dock in Chicago facing fraud and racketeering charges that arise from business deals and noncompete payments negotiated almost entirely with Canadians over Canadian media properties. The cover of the special Conrad Black edition of Maclean's, their national newsweekly, puts it bluntly: "The United States vs. Conrad Black." "He's wacky but he's ours," Canadians are inclined to think, "and we're grown-up enough to try him ourselves if we think he deserves to be tried."
The Canadian press has been exploring the differences between their legal system and ours. In the telling, Canada's always sounds vastly more civilized. Our ways with pretrial publicity, rules of evidence, presentation of witnesses, sentencing--they all mark us as a rough-justice kind of place where defendants like Black who stick up for themselves spend extra decades behind bars for their effrontery, where Black himself could wind up with a longer sentence than Canada gives its murderers.
This past Sunday the Toronto Star indulged itself with a long profile of defense cocounsel Ed Genson, lingering on his "dimly lit" office in the Monadnock Building--"Sam Spade-ish," said Genson himself--and his mob clients. The point was to portray not merely Genson but his natural habitat, our town, us. "Winnipeg on steroids," wrote reporter Diane Francis in Canada's Financial Post, hailing our "impressive work ethic" and our "populism." She explained that Chicago, her hometown, "has no inherited economic elite. The McCormicks and Marshall Fields are long gone."
This must come as news to Marshall Field V, who back in the 70s owned the Sun-Times, the paper Black owned more recently, and who's hung around town to lead your classic civically useful, old-money sort of life. Whatever. The point being made in Canada is that Black will be tried by a jury that can't possibly understand him. Don Butler of CanWest News Service wrote, in a report published across the dominion, "For Conrad Black, it comes down to this: his fate--in a very real sense, what's left of his extraordinary, outsized life--will soon rest with 12 Chicagoans about as familiar with his own accustomed orbit of excess and privilege as Pluto is with photosynthesis."
The other day I had the giddy experience of speaking live to Canada on the subject of the Conrad Black trial. I sat in a tiny studio facing a camera, and a CBC anchorman in Toronto asked questions through a speaker in my ear. This wasn't the first time a Canadian reporter had interviewed me, and my material was acquiring some polish. The Conrad Black trial has none of the local impact of our last legal circus, the George Ryan trial, I explained to the nation that's dubbed this the "trial of the century" and dispatched so many reporters to Chicago that any Canadian journalist not here must feel disgraced. The Grey Cup is awarded each fall to the Canadian Football League champion, and I said that holding the Black trial in Chicago is like playing the Grey Cup game at Soldier Field.
But afterward, I thought harder. No, neither Black nor David Radler--the partner who's pleaded guilty and turned state's evidence against him--is a household name in Chicago, even though Radler lived here part-time and for years was publisher of the Sun-Times. But if Chicago doesn't know them by name, it does know them by their newspapers. And if Black wanted to concoct a narrative that a populist jury would buy, the paper those populists all know well might be the place to start.
Lord Black of Crossharbour to his jury:
"I own up to my sins. Yes, I am a lord. What's worse, I am a capitalist, a man who delights in making money, believes he deserves to make it, and claps the back of the man who makes it with me. But I refuse to be branded as what my accusers have called me: kleptocrat. In 1994 my business partner David Radler and I purchased the Chicago Sun-Times, a paper you all know well, and I assure you we didn't have to stand in line to buy it. Second-tier newspapers are a vanishing commodity, and at the time the Sun-Times--owned by an underfinanced investment banker in New York--had one foot in the grave. Ours was the sort of brave, perhaps foolish purchase that no kleptocrat would have considered for a second. But we believed in the Sun-Times, we believed in Chicago, and we thought we could make the Sun-Times work.
"And that paper isn't all we bought. Mr. Radler assembled a collection of daily and weekly titles in the Chicago area--some hundred in all--that became Hollinger's Chicago Group. Furthermore, we committed $120 million to building a printing facility for the Sun-Times and our other properties.
"And, oh yes, we drove a hard bargain with Donald Trump and sold him our real estate on the banks of the Chicago River at an excellent price. We trimmed the staff of our newspapers because they had to be trimmed, yet we continued to publish excellent newspapers. It was the Sun-Times's Hired Truck series, was it not, that turned City Hall upside down in a way from which it has yet to recover? I assure you, had we not bought the Sun-Times, had we not assembled the Chicago Group to provide synergies and savings of scale, had we not constructed the new printing plant the Sun-Times desperately needed, had we not extracted full value from the real estate the Sun-Times stood on, Chicago would be a one-newspaper city today. And much the poorer for it.
"My thanks? To be labeled a kleptocrat.
"I suffer from the sins of orotundity and rotundity, and back in Canada this has made me easy to mock. So be it. But because you, the jury, don't know me well, the prosecution has attempted to caricature me as a pompous, arrogant thief. The prosecution would have you believe I was seldom in Chicago because I busied myself hosting extravagant birthday parties for my wife and slipping off to Bora Bora on the corporate jet--indulging myself in ways I suspect would not be unfamiliar to Chicago's distinguished CEOs.
"But in fact, I am a genuinely busy man. While presiding over Hollinger I've written and published an acclaimed biography of FDR. I'm nearing completion of a biography of Richard Nixon. And that 'lordship'--which perhaps brings a smile to some of your faces--is not an honorific. I sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British government, and I take my duties seriously. So I have been engaged in Britain's affairs of state.
"It wouldn't have occurred to me until recently that Chicago suffered from my absence. Mr. Radler was here managing things, and as far as I could see managing them well. The tales told out of school about David Radler today are that he's a man who turns off escalators to save pennies and pilfers sugar packets from restaurants. That's hardly sufficient to describe someone I have known all my life, at one time would have trusted with my life, and have considered the most competent administrator I've ever met.
"If I neglected corporate matters in Chicago, it was only because those running things here enjoyed my complete confidence. Mr. Radler's abilities I didn't question for a minute. And as the corporate watchdog, the guardian at the gate who presumably consulted with him every step of the way, there was the chairman of the board's audit committee, James Thompson. To say I had total faith in Mr. Thompson's judgment is to understate it. Mr. Thompson is not only a former governor of Illinois, he's the former U.S. attorney of this jurisdiction. On his watch fiscal irresponsibility would be not only unwise but unthinkable!
"Early in his prosecutorial career Mr. Thompson convicted a former governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, on the grounds that he had violated the people's 'intangible right to honest service.' Surely a nose so fine that it could sniff out a long-past violation of an intangible right would detect a corrupt transaction as it happened. And yet Mr. Thompson's didn't. Perhaps he had a cold. Perhaps Mr. Radler deceived him every step of the way. Perhaps, in order to go on enjoying the buffet laid out whenever the Hollinger board got together, Mr. Thompson was willing to let himself be deceived. I don't know. I simply know that if in the hurly-burly of corporate governance a law or regulation came close to being broken, I fully expected Mr. Thompson to sound an alarm. He remained silent.
"And so I believed, apparently wrongly, that the Chicago operation was in good and honest hands. The prosecution has laid out a case that it was in hands neither good nor honest. But they were not mine."
The prosecution will tell its own story, full of the prickly little specifics that usually decide white-collar trials--such as, perhaps, the letter from Black to the now self-incriminated Radler praising him for the "splendid conveyance of the noncompetition agreements from which you and I profited so well."
But Conrad Black has a story to tell that could play in Chicago. Granted, it might enjoy a longer run in Regina.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.