Lord of Crookharbour

Visitors to U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve’s 12th floor courtroom in Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Building for the Conrad Black trial found several surprises.

There were plenty of seats and no wait to get in. (“Scratch that overflow room.”)

The judge looked like Christie Brinkley and about 30 years old.

And defense attorneys outnumbered the jury (and seemed more bored by the end).

But the bigger surprise at the end of the four month trial in which the media tycoon and his codefendants were accused of looting their former company, Hollinger International, of $60 million was the jury.

It didn’t convict the high living Black on all counts in a soak-the-rich gesture some expected–or acquit Black on all counts because of inability to understand the abstruse high finance charges–a scenario others expected.

No, the jury of nine women and three men actually waded through all 42 separate charges against Black and his codefendants attorney Mark Kipnis, former Hollinger CFO John Boultbee and former Hollinger Executive Vice President Peter Atkinson, finding Black guilty of obstruction of justice and three counts of mail fraud and acquitting him on nine other counts, including racketeering. The three codefendants were also found guilty of three counts each of mail fraud.

Sentencing is expected in November.

While U.S. Atty. Patrick (“Scooter Libby”) Fitzgerald and his prosecutorial whiz kids Eric Sussman, Julie Ruder and Jeffrey Cramer took their bows, Black’s dream team defense attorneys Edward Greenspan of Toronto and Edward Gensen of Chicago were reduced to trying to keep their convicted felon client out of an immediate orange prison jumpsuit.

Because in addition to being termed a flight risk by the prosecution–Judge St. Eve confiscated his passport and made him promise he wouldn’t flee–Black renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to become a peer of the British realm and is no longer eligible for Canada’s more lenient prison system.

(“Dear Prime Minister: Remember how I sued you when you blocked my nomination to the House of Lords? Perhaps I acted in haste….”)

Nor does Britain want him anymore. Since the conviction he was stripped of “the whip”–his right to sit in the House–by the Conservative leader, David Cameron.

The trial must have been, well, a trial for the jury. At its peak Black’s Hollinger newspaper empire embraced the Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post, Daily Telegraph and National Post but jury members mostly heard from small newspaper owners sold noncompete agreements they didn’t need–like the paper in Jamestown, ND with a population of 10,000–their payments diverted to Black.

Instead of former Hollinger board members Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, jury members heard from former Illinois Gov. James Thompson who admitted signing documents approving the Black payments without reading them–he skimmed them–as head of Hollinger’s audit committee. You go, Guv.

Also testifying were a series of former Hollinger financial officers and clerks–one remembered telling Black he would “pray for him”
–and Black’s former partner F. David Radler who turned evidence for a lighter sentence.

(“If you and Black were so close over 30 years, why did you never take a vacation together?” impugned a defense attorney while Black and Radler glared at each other.)

In fact the only glamour in the trial beyond descriptions of Black’s Bora Bora trip and heated towel racks were the costume changes of Black’s wife Barbara Amiel (from black to black) and daughter Alana (low risers to low risers) who sat next to each other during the trial.

(Their millions were obviously not going to their hair.)

The only “action” besides the security camera video of Black removing boxes of evidence from his Toronto office that led to his obstruction of justice conviction, was memos projected on the wall. (Here comes the yellow highlighter!)

And while the jury’s performance proves the system works and that average men and women can decipher high level corporate crime and bring justice, it raises disturbing questions about the future of the newspaper industry.

Was Black’s churning and burning of his newspaper empire “prescience” of the current newspaper “funk” as the New York Times says–getting out while the getting was good?

Does the Chicago Sun-Times have any hope of winning its $500 million civil suit against Black and his wife when Black also faces a SEC civil suit and lost most of his wealth when ousted as Hollinger chief executive and fired as its chairman?

Especially when the Chicago Sun-Times is actually paying 75% of Black’s legal fees–$17.4 million so far this year–due to a provision in his employment contract for “open ended representation”? And will no doubt pay for an appeal?

And what does it say about a city in which half the newspaper reading public reads the Sun-Times that few know or care who Conrad Black is, what he did or whether he’s wearing an orange jump suit?

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org




Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).