Conrad Black's day in court

The Baltimore Sun

TORONTO -- When Conrad M. Black pleaded not guilty to criminal fraud charges in December 2005, a federal court in Chicago granted his request that he be defended by Edward L. Greenspan, one of the most famous criminal defense lawyers in Canada, where he is known by the nickname Fast Eddie.

But the court made Black sign a waiver acknowledging that he understood that his lawyer, for all his renown in Canada, does not know American law.

If he loses, Black, who faces more than 90 years in jail if convicted, cannot appeal on the grounds that it was his lawyer's fault.

"I love that I've been certified as stupid by the Illinois judge," said Greenspan, who plans to frame a copy of the court document and hang it in his law office here. "So stupid," he added, "that no matter how incompetent I might be, Conrad can't rely on it."

The waiver is just one of the elements that seem to ensure that the case of United States of America v. Conrad M. Black et al., which begins tomorrow in federal court in Chicago, is going to be unusual.

First there is Black himself, a larger-than-life figure whose baroque vocabulary and towering demeanor can seem straight out of Dickens. Unlike most defendants in corporate malfeasance trials facing the rest of their years behind bars, Black has gone very public - giving interviews and speeches, writing articles chastising his accusers and vowing not only exoneration but a comeback.

"He not only says he's not guilty," Greenspan said, "he says it to everybody who listens, and everybody who doesn't listen."

The trial is taking place in Chicago because that is the registered headquarters of Black's former holding company in the United States, called Hollinger International.

In its heyday a decade ago, Hollinger was the world's third-largest newspaper company by circulation. The former press tycoon will be pitted against Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for Illinois who recently made headlines with the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators.

Fitzgerald is not expected to prosecute the Black trial personally, but will stop in from time to time to observe how the case is progressing.

Black contends in a recent e-mail that the Hollinger directors behind his ouster and Richard C. Breeden, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman who helped conduct the internal investigation into Hollinger and its affiliates, "have sucked the blood out of those companies and done savage violence to the public shareholders."

There has long been a cinematic quality to Black's life and career, including his rise to prominence and striking fall. He was for a time, the publisher of The Daily Telegraph in London, The Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times and most of the large daily newspapers in Canada.

Married to a glamorous conservative columnist, Barbara Amiel, who served on Hollinger International's board and as a corporate vice president, Black cut a swath through high society here and in London, Palm Beach, Fla., and New York.

But in late 2003 - two years after giving up his Canadian citizenship in a huff to become a British peer - Black's career unraveled at the hands of his hand-picked board of high-profile directors. These included former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and one-time Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson.

Black and several associates such as his longtime partner F. David Radler are alleged to have helped themselves to unauthorized bonuses that were not properly disclosed to the board or shareholders. An internal company inquiry accused Black's management of greed on a vast scale and said Hollinger International was a victim of "a corporate kleptocracy."

Black and three former Hollinger International executives, Peter Atkinson, Jack A. Boultbee and Mark Kipnis, have pleaded innocent to charges, including fraud, racketeering and obstruction of justice, relating to more than $80 million in allegedly misappropriated money.

Most of the money in question related to agreements involving buyers of Hollinger newspapers and the company, which said that neither Hollinger nor its important executives would start competing publications.

Black has argued that any wrongdoing was either the result of sloppy paperwork that was approved by the company's star-studded board or was the handiwork of Radler - who has pleaded guilty to a single fraud charge and agreed to act as a chief witness against Black and the others. Radler will serve a sentence of up to 29 months for his plea, possibly in a Canadian jail.

Some other charges against Black stem from alleged abuses of his position of trust running a publicly traded company, including using the company plane for a holiday in Bora Bora, buying a Park Avenue apartment in New York on unfair terms from the company and using $40,000 of company money to pay for a 60th birthday party studded with elites for Amiel at La Grenouille restaurant in Manhattan.

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