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Sunday 13 May 2007

Chandeliers shed little light on Lord Black and the Snitch

THIS was a crucially important week in the Conrad Black case, but, first, let's address the matter of the chandeliers. While Lord Black has been sitting in Chicago watching David Radler, his business partner of 36 years, performing as star witness for the prosecution, in New York he has been fighting a case taken by Sotheby's International Realty Inc (posh name for estate agents), who are suing for their €412,000 commission on the €7.7m sale of his New York apartment in 2005.

Black had needed the money to pay for lawyers in the criminal case he knew was shortly to be taken against him, but the FBI confiscated the money and refused to pay the commission.

Black's case is that Sotheby's are suing the wrong party, that, they hid from him that they were acting for both vendor and buyer and that they conspired with the buyers and the FBI to have the money seized. Sotheby's say that Lady Black removed five chandeliers that the vendors thought were fixtures. The FBI claim that Black had swindled his company, Hollinger International Inc, when in 2000 he bought the apartment from it for just €2.2m.

I have just one comment on this case, and it's addressed to the friend who said I was being uncharacteristically equivocal about the Black case. Eamonn, I'm still keeping an open mind, but it's stated that the estate agent (sorry, realtor), Patricia Patterson, and Black had known each other for years, which is why he was able to get a discount on the sales commission.

Now I know one should never believe anything one reads in the press, but if these facts are accurate, 5.3 per cent commission on the purchase price was a discount And much of the proceedings against Black are about his greed?

I'm getting less equivocal.

Now to Chicago and "the snitch". I call Radler this, not because I disapprove in principle of helping the state if one's colleagues are criminals (is not one of my closest friends an IRA informer?), but because of an article Barbara Amiel (aka Lady Black) wrote a few months ago about "the era of denunciation".

"Today," she mused, "the snitch is not the weasel-face to be shunned, but the righteous person to be emulated."

She didn't mention, but was obviously thinking of, Radler, aka "turncoat" or "Brutus". Mark Steyn describes him as "a furtive, shifty, ratty germaphobe".

The facts are that while Black was the visionary, Radler was the money-man and cost-cutter: according to Black, Radler once fined a reporter two cents for wasting a sheet of paper on which he had written his grievances.

He was also a great deal-maker. He says he and Black conspired to defraud the company.

In reading Radler's evidence, I have allowed for the possibility that he is a man of principle who - after a lifetime as Black's right-hand man - did some dubious transactions which gave him, Black and Black's co-defendants non-compete fees which should have gone to the shareholders, and now is telling the truth about his crimes. The trouble is that he is contradicting the evidence he originally gave to the investigators and has very good reason to do so.

People often say that the US system of plea-bargaining is a brilliant way of bringing baddies to justice. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to corrupt the witnesses. Radler could have been up there with Black on charges that could have brought him a lifetime in jail. Instead, because he agreed to be a witness for the prosecution, he has admitted fraud, paid a large fine but is still wealthy, and will serve 29 months in a Canadian jail, where he may be eligible for "day parole" after serving one-sixth of his time.

When Mark Steyn asks: "What is fair about a trial in which just about every witness is here as condition of his own deal with the government?" I take his point. Conrad Black and his co-defendants could have done the same but they have chosen not to.

The defence landed some blows on Radler, but not a knock-out punch. It's all to play for.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards