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(Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)
(Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

Richard Siklos

Conrad Black's punishment never fit the crime Add to ...

Six years ago, I published a book on Conrad Black that chronicled the newspaper empire he had built and the tailspin his life and career were then in. He'd been kicked out of his company and sued, but wouldn't be charged with fraud for another year. And while there were plenty of recriminations swirling around, I gave him the final word in Shades of Black: "This is a long-running drama," he told me, "and it may have a surprise ending." Right you are, Lord Black.

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Fast forward to the next week or so, and Conrad Black will be out of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida after two years and four months, facing the very real prospect that his jail time is over and that he has a shot at having his entire conviction overturned.

In the months ahead, there are going to be a lot of people re-examining their view of Lord Black and his saga - and he has always been a divisive public figure. Where his conviction is concerned, it's worth remembering that his trial did not go especially smoothly, and that the accused himself never took the stand in his own defence. His side of the story was always that he had been swept up in a wave of corporate governance hysteria after the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, and that his own boards of directors - overindexed with political and society types - ran for cover when shareholders started questioning his behaviour.

After a three-month trial in Chicago, he was convicted of three counts of wire fraud totalling $2.9-million in misappropriated funds, as well as one count of obstruction of justice, and acquitted of nine other charges. As I wrote when he was sentenced in late 2007: Setting aside the question of whether he should have been convicted at all, the punishment in this case was never going to fit the crime. His release is correct from both a legal and karmic standpoint.

People, of course, have served far more time for lesser crimes, but, in context, 6½ years with no chance of parole for most of the sentence was unfair. Lord Black began his sentence in March of 2008 and, for much of the time since then, I've been thinking what a waste it's been. Whether you think he's a hero or a rogue, he posed no harm to anyone and, given his utter belief in his own innocence, the idea of him being rehabilitated was irrelevant.

Another thing that's become clear is that the idea of putting prominent business people behind bars to "send a message" to their community seems pretty tenuous: There seems to be a ready stream of brazen new corporate fraudsters to read about, from Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier on down, not to mention all the Wall Street titans who are unscathed from near-ruining the economy.

All that said, Lord Black did his time with a fortitude that is not surprising but is still impressive. His journey over the past few years has been almost entirely about the principal of defending his name versus merely serving as little time as possible. (If he had wanted to do the latter, he might have cut a deal like his ex-partner David Radler, who ended up testifying against him and the other three colleagues who were convicted in the mess.)

While the case has now boiled down to a specific interpretation of law and the options available to address it, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. Attorney in Chicago will want to retry him. The only big question, then, is what to do with the obstruction of justice charge that was not addressed in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and still stands. Given the granting of bail, legal observers think he stands a good chance of having the charge thrown out, or at least relegated to time served.

Meantime, Wednesday's bail hearing will determine where and how Lord Black can go while all this is sorted out -complicated by the fact that he's no longer a Canadian but rather a British citizen. One imagines the place he feels most comfortable is still Toronto. It might be unusual to let people leave the U.S. when they're free on bail, but one thing that ought to be abundantly obvious to the court by now is that Lord Black is no flight risk. He showed up in Chicago to fight his case and he showed up in Florida to serve his sentence. He's not going anywhere while he pursues his "surprise ending."

Richard Siklos lives in Los Angeles and is writing a book on Michael Jackson.

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