In what is likely to be seen as an attempt to settle scores, former newspaper nabob Conrad Black is using the weapon of a new book, A Matter of Principle, to argue that he has been the maligned victim of a significant miscarriage of justice.
Lord Black, convicted in 2007 of fraud and obstruction of justice, has served 29 months of a 6½-year prison sentence in Florida’s Coleman Federal Correction Complex. He is expected to return to the facility next week to complete the remaining 13 months of his sentence.
The bulk of his 550-page book, to be published by McClelland & Stewart next month, deals with the period that followed Lord Black’s precipitous fall from corporate grace in late 2003, when his own board of directors staged a de facto putsch, and ceded the levers of power to his enemies.
Worse was to follow. When it was over, Lord Black’s name had been disgraced, his considerable personal assets had been liquidated and his influential newspaper empire (including the London Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times, the National Post, the Jerusalem Post and hundreds of community papers) was in bankruptcy.
And, after a protracted trial in Chicago that ended in his conviction, ignominy: the improbable spectacle of a 63-year-old baron of the United Kingdom, Knight of the Holy See, Privy Councillor and Officer of the Order of Canada trading in his pinstripe suit for a set of prison-issued orange dungarees.
Throughout the text, the now 67-year-old Lord Black maintains that he did nothing wrong – that “I had not behaved dishonestly … having relied on well-paid executives and professional advisers to do their jobs properly.”
But he does confess to hubris, allowing that he ought to have been more vigilant, saying that he was “insouciant about the shareholder-relations issues,” and that “my pride and spirit were of the nature that often leads to a fall.”
Not surprisingly, Lord Black takes particular aim at his enemies and those former colleagues who either turned against him during the legal ordeal or simply abandoned him to his uncertain fate.
Chief among these is his former friend and business partner of 36 years David Radler, who eventually pleaded guilty to one charge of fraud (he served 10 months of a 29-month sentence) and subsequently abetted the federal prosecution of Lord Black.
In a two-page diatribe, Lord Black describes Mr. Radler’s “squinty, evasive eyes” and, with a Dickensian flourish, calls him “an outcast even to himself, hunched, furtive … like a man bound for the gallows, worn down as much by the knowledge of his own wretchedness as by impending punishment … too distasteful to be pitiful … too banal to arouse any interest at all.”
Of hedge fund manager Richard Breeden, who became his principal nemesis in the bloody legal skirmishes that preceded trial, Lord Black says their first encounter was not reassuring: “round, flabby face; dull, lifeless eyes behind thick spectacles; a brusque, humourless and unanimated demeanour. He reminded me of nothing so much as a regional commissar of Beria’s [founder of Joseph Stalin’s secret police]… with the bloodless, piscine coldness of someone whose power vastly exceeded his intelligence.”
Lord Black is more measured in his assessment of former board member and friend Henry Kissinger, “one of the great personalities of the last third of the 20th century.” Under oath at the trial, Mr. Kissinger called Lord Black one of his closest friends in the world for decades. But the former U.S. secretary of state ultimately threw his considerable weight with what Lord Black terms the zealots.
“[He]just followed the correlation of forces, as he did in all things, great and small.”
When the coup d’état was mounted, Mr. Kissinger’s vote of betrayal was ultimately decisive. “The life I had worked for 30 years to build had been taken from me in an irresistible stroke, so swift and overwhelming, it was hard to grasp at first.”
Elsewhere, Lord Black addresses his now infamous removal of private papers from his corporate headquarters at 10 Toronto St. Videotape of that episode, taken from security cameras he had arranged to be installed, became the single most damning evidence in the obstruction of justice case against him.
But all of these boxes, Lord Black insists, had been seen and photographed by U.S. regulators and inspectors. Moreover, he not only knew he was being filmed, “I wanted to be filmed, so there could be no suggestion of my trying to remove these boxes undetected. … It would turn out that there was not a commercially significant document in these 13 boxes that the SEC did not already possess.”
Lord Black repeatedly comes to the defence of “my beloved wife,” columnist Barbara Amiel, who was said to have demanded the sumptuous lifestyle that may have impelled him to commit the crimes of which he was accused.
Lord Black finds that suggestion offensive, as he does the notion that his life, despite four multimillion-dollar homes in New York, London, Toronto and Palm Beach, was lived too extravagantly.
His legal conviction, Lord Black concludes, is a travesty of America’s once robust system of justice. But while he has found incarceration tedious, it has been tolerable. “The worst the enemy could do would be quite survivable.”
On his first night there, a senior member of the Genovese crime family assured him that he would not be bothered. “If you catch a cold, we will find out who you got it from. You know, we have much in common.”
Lord Black agreed, since both were challenging the legal apparatus of a state.
“Yes, but more than that,” said the Mafioso, “ we are industrialists.”