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Sunday 27 May 2007

All together now: sit down and shut up, Conrad

THERE WAS full agreement last week between the defence, the prosecution and the judge: someone needed to put a muzzle on Conrad Black.

He's been annoying his enemies and worrying his friends by protesting his innocence loudly and at every opportunity since he first got into trouble with the law. In his unpleasant kiss-and-tell whinge a few weeks ago, Jeff Chevalier, the retired rent boy and ex-lover of Lord (BP) Browne, spoke of meeting the Blacks at a party in the south of France. "Conrad spoke of his innocence like a broken record . . . their supposed friends were all laughing and making snide comments about him behind his back. It was amusing to see Conrad's peers commenting behind his back that they didn't believe him." It will be even more amusing to see how they react if he gets off, for Black has made it clear that he intends to plunge back vigorously into the business world, while firing off lawsuits in all directions.

However, he rather overdid it on the chutzpah front a week ago when - in an interview to publicise the 1,100-page biography Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest - he confided that the prosecution's case was "bullshit", and "hanging like a toilet seat around their necks". He had written the book as part of his war against the US government: "You'll be aware of stories that I was living in my house in Toronto as some kind of Howard Hughes, my fingernails grown long and my hair to my navel. I thought this could be my way of demonstrating to my tormentors that they hadn't even prevented me from writing a book."

And the choice of subject was also, of course, a way of cocking a snook at those who think him guilty. Black's Nixon was "brilliant, brave, and misunderstood", although he behaved in a "terribly tawdry" way over Watergate and broke the law, which Black, as "an honest man", wholly condemns.

Even more annoying to the prosecution than the general abuse was Black's dismissal of David Radler, their chief witness, as having no "credibility". It was not appropriate for him to comment on testimony publicly, protested Eric Sussman, the lead prosecution attorney. Judge Amy St Eve agreed and suggested the defence "probably didn't want him to do that either", to which one of Black's chief lawyers said, "That's a fair statement."

Judge St Eve, a tiny 41-year-old who is winning the respect of everyone, offered to speak to Black in private, leading his attorney Edward Genson to say, "I think if I sit down and explain to him, 'It's either me or the judge,' I think it will stop."

Other than this, last week's highlights included audio tapes of two fractious shareholder meetings where discontent ("an epidemic of shareholder idiocy", according to Black) was expressed by some investing institutions about the level of payments to executives. According to the testimony of Black's former colleague Paul Healy, Black had refused in 2002 to tell the Audit Committee about the shareholder concerns. The following year, Black wrote to Donald Trump: "Could I ask a rather esoteric favour? Some of the [investing] institutions are engaging in an insurrection and I plan on a forceful rebuttal . . . If you were able to make a cameo appearance and put in a supportive word, I'm sure it would have an impact." Trump did his bit, but investors successfully demanded the setting-up of a special investigatory committee, at which stage Healy changed sides. "I supported Conrad until I found out what he'd done," he said. "Until you made up what he'd done," said Genson.

Healy was a dodgy witness. He was giving testimony under a court order granting him immunity from criminal charges; there were emails demonstrating that he had been sycophantic towards Black until things went wrong; his salary was increased after Black was forced out of the company in November 2003; and in 2005, Healy left Hollinger and went to work for the investment-management firm run by Richard Breedon, who had chaired the special committee. Healy also had to admit he had lied in 2000 when he wrote a memo saying he had taken advice about the value of the Hollinger apartment Black lived in and that $3m would be a fair market price: he hadn't taken advice and the price took no account of inflation. This should have been damning evidence against Black, yet there is the peculiar twist that Healy could have justified the price without lying, since Black had already spent $2m of his own money to refurbish the apartment.

Black and his three co-defendants are on trial for several counts relating to criminal fraud, including the embezzlement of $60m over the last decade from Hollinger, the financial firm of which Black was once chief executive.

The prosecution case is expected to end next week. There is much speculation on whether Black will take the stand, but the general feeling is that his lawyers just want him to sit there and shut up.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards