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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The rehabilitation of Conrad Black Add to ...

A few weeks before he went on trial, I ran into Conrad Black at one of those big intellectual gabfests in Toronto. Dressed in his customary pinstripe suit, he was utterly serene. The world would soon see that the charges were baseless, he insisted. Any jury made up of 12 "stout citizens of Chicago" would surely acquit him on the merits.

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People rolled their eyes in disbelief when he said that. It was classic Conrad hubris. When the 12 stout citizens convicted him on three counts of fraud and one of obstruction, nobody was surprised - except, perhaps, for Lord Black himself. He was everybody's favourite cartoon capitalist villain. The common sentiment among the smart set (including many of his former friends) was that he got about what he deserved.

But now, the smart set is thinking twice. They're not so sure he's all that guilty any more, and if so, of what. The rehabilitation of Conrad Black's reputation is well under way.

One reason is the moral weight of the U.S, Supreme Court, which declared recently that the "honest services" law used to convict him was truly bad. It has been abused by prosecutors for years to go after just the type of unsympathetic businessmen that juries love to convict. The judges sharply narrowed the scope of the law, and booted Lord Black's case down the line for reconsideration. It's not at all clear that his conviction will be overturned. (And, in any case, the guilty verdict that resulted from his sneaky-looking removal of those boxes still stands.) Still, it's hard to avoid the sense that, at least in part, he was railroaded.

People's hearts are also softening toward Lord Black himself. In prison, he has become a much more sympathetic figure. It started with that photo in the jail yard, showing him in an open-necked shirt with one pant leg partly rolled up - just another guy in a prison suit.

Lord Black seems to be that rare inmate whose character has actually improved behind bars. Prison has made him kinder, humbler and more agreeable, and has vastly expanded his sympathies to those less privileged than himself. He has discovered a gift for teaching (he teaches English and U.S. history to the inmates) and takes great satisfaction in his students' progress. They, in turn, have taught him how to read music, play the piano and keep fit. (Some people used to call him Lord Tubby.) He's popular with both the inmates and the wardens, and has borne his incarceration with self-deprecating humour. (He refers to his jailers as "my gracious hosts in the U.S. government.") Even his writing has improved. It's much less pompous.

Lord Black's contact with the underclass has made a strong impression on him, just as it did on Martha Stewart. The fat cat in pinstripes has become an ardent advocate for prison reform. He believes that many inmates are as much the victims of misfortune and bad luck as of their own misdeeds. He heaps scorn all over the Harper government's tough-on crime legislation, which he calls perverse. Prison has broadened his social conscience, and as Martha Stewart used to say, that's a good thing.

In hindsight, Lord Black's crimes seem far less heinous than they did at the time. No one directly lost a cent because of him. And the catastrophes inflicted on the world by the recklessness of Wall Street did infinitely more damage than all of America's other corporate criminals put together. If all the zeal and might of the U.S. government had been directed at policing Wall Street, instead of chasing cartoon fat cats, we might be a lot better off today. Personally, I think it's time to let him out - even if he gets to say "I told you so."

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