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Sunday 3 June 2007

Case against Black is lost in translation

"IF THE monies were not illegally diverted from Hollinger International, it shouldn't have been on the income tax return, should it?" was a question that Conrad Black's defence lawyer asked of a US Internal Revenue Service agent last week.

This was one of the many moments in this case when I felt like packing it in. I examined the sentence every way up and I still couldn't grasp if it was a killer blow or a pinprick in the war between US prosecutors and Conrad Black. I couldn't even work out who won the exchange.

I can, however, report that things became clearer when it emerged that the IRS lady had not been asked for an objective opinion on the facts, but instead had been asked to make a case for the prosecutors' assumption that Black was doing something dodgy.

"They gave me the assumption," she explained, "and I then looked at documents to do with that assumption."

That stinks.

Like the defence, who on Wednesday - after the prosecution wound up - petitioned to have the whole case dismissed, I'm bewildered by how millions of public money can be spent on such a weak prosecution. We haven't even heard from a victim of Black's alleged frauds - perhaps because the shareholders, aggrieved by big rewards for management, are these days much more aggrieved by the hopelessness of the successors of the Black regime who have brought about a catastrophic plunge in the value of their shares.

Instead, the prosecutors go on and on and on about Black's spending habits. Last week I learned that he bought a $2.6m diamond ring for his wife in London's Bond Street, before snapping up a $604,000 antique brooch. And the point is?

If Black's money was ill-gotten, that's an issue. If it wasn't, whose business is it that he's uxorious? I'm not alone in finding it revolting that the prosecution is forever trying to make the jury hate the Blacks for being extravagant. A big deal has been made recently about the heated towel rails in their New York apartment. OK, I confess all. I have a heated towel rail in my bathroom. (Well, a radiator actually, but I hang my towels on it.) Don't tell the taxman.

So what else last week? Well, there were the boxes. There was video footage of Black unusually doing some manual labour by removing 13 boxes from his office. "I saw Conrad Black giving some boxes to his chauffeur, who loaded the boxes," said Shahab Mahmood, a security guard, who on the face of it seems to have been the first witness for the prosecution who was neither bribed nor intimidated into giving evidence. "It was unusual. I never saw Conrad Black carrying boxes."

Was Black removing stuff to frustrate the prosecution? Or - having been fired - just taking away personal effects from an office he had inhabited for decades? Search me.

I have moved offices in my time, and even carried boxes, and I think it likely that Black was doing something normal. But what do I know? I'm a humble historian. Unlike US lawyers, I'm not paid $800 an hour to confuse people.

To remind you. Black faces 13 charges, six of mail fraud, three of wire fraud, one count of obstruction of justice (that's the removal of the boxes, which were later returned), one of racketeering and two counts of tax evasion, which together could earn him more than a century in jail. It used to be 14 charges, but last week the prosecution, without explanation, dropped the money-laundering allegation.

There was much mauling last week of Black's personal assistant, Joan Maida, who says she packed the boxes with personal files, and whom the prosecution sought to discredit because she was obviously partisan. Yes, she liked her boss. What's more, she had been circulating T-shirts with the slogan "Conrad Will Win".

Twelve weeks ago, when I began following this case, I felt a mild antipathy towards the Blacks. The absurdity of the prosecution case has caused me to become partisan. If Ms Maida sends me a T-shirt, I might even wear it.

Oh, and by the way, although it's unlikely that the judge will dismiss the case, it looks as if - as a result of the prosecution pretty well throwing in the heated towel - the defence may take only a few days. I think Conrad will win. But then, what do I know of American juries? I was certain that OJ Simpson would be found guilty.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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