When I noticed that Conrad Black had thanked and acknowledged thousands of people in his new book and I wasn't one of them, I sensed that I probably wasn't going to like it.
Conrad Black and I were first-year classmates at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1965. I didn't really know him at that time, but over the years we have met at different places. On one of those occasions, I stopped to say hello to him in a restaurant. We chatted and at one point he said to me, “You'd better leave, I don't want people to think I need a criminal lawyer.” I didn't realize it at the time, but he wasn't joking.
Years later, Conrad got into the difficulties that ultimately resulted in his criminal trial in Chicago. Early on, he retained me as an adviser. I helped him find a U.S. criminal lawyer, the celebrated Brendan Sullivan, whom he hired. It was understood that if he was charged, Mr. Sullivan would be his lawyer. As that day approached, Mr. Sullivan told Conrad he needed $25-million in addition to the many millions he had already received. That was the first time in my life I ever regretted not being an American lawyer.
When Mr. Sullivan made his request, Conrad came to me and said, “I want you to be my lawyer in Chicago.” I'm Canadian; my practice is here. But Conrad pushed strenuously for me to take the matter on.
I took the case on the condition that I hire a very experienced American criminal lawyer to join the team, as I was not an expert in U.S. law, practice or procedure. In fact, there was a formal hearing in court where it was impressed upon Conrad that I would rely on my American counterpart for the law. That's how I got involved in the case.
When Black pays
There is an old joke. A man walks into a bar, orders a beer, and announces, “When McTavish drinks, everybody drinks!” The crowd cheers him as the bartender refills their glasses. McTavish drains his pint, orders another, announces again, “When McTavish drinks, everybody drinks!” Again, cheerful applause. He drains this pint too, puts $10 on the bar and heads out, calling over his shoulder, “When McTavish pays, everybody pays!”
That, in essence, is Conrad Black's position in his book. Some clients want others to pay with them. They want – need – to lay blame elsewhere and point the finger at everybody. And the prime target for frightened, angry men and women when things don't go as they expect is frequently their lawyer.
I am sorry to see Conrad Black behaving in this way.
There is a great deal of the record that should be set straight, but I'm going to limit myself to a few issues.
There is no doubt that the prosecutorial process in the United States is a toxic, predatory environment. The charges against Conrad were massively overloaded by very aggressive, ambitious prosecutors and heavy-handed, even unconstitutional, procedures.
I hired quintessential Chicago criminal lawyers Eddie Genson and Marc Martin. They have been involved in some of the most important criminal cases in the federal courthouse in Chicago for 25 years. Recently, the former governor of Illinois hired Mr. Genson. He is a serious and formidable lawyer. Mr. Martin is rightfully regarded as one of the finest legal minds in criminal law.
In his book, Conrad wrote that he doubted Mr. Genson had ever represented a respectable client and then said of me: Respectable clients “were not his specialty.”
Conrad added that we have a misplaced reverence for the hoods and lowlifes he believes we represent. It is sad to observe this reckless lashing out at his lawyers and those charged with presumably less lofty offences than fraud. Eddie Genson and I have had the privilege over our careers to act for an enormous number of decent, honourable people, just as wrongly charged as Conrad. He has to know that these petty insults are beneath him.
A problem with clients
Conrad's flawed account of his own trial is a reminder of how seldom an accused person actually grasps what is going on in court. Most defendants in a criminal trial realize that they shouldn't expect to understand the process. That is what hiring experienced criminal counsel is all about.