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Sunday 8 July 2007

No Trump card as trial avoids bad hair day

"WHAT the hell am I to write about this week?" I asked on Friday over dinner in London of the friend who best knows Conrad Black. "The jury was sent home early on Wednesday; the court didn't sit on Thursday for logistical reasons and I had been relying on Donald Trump to spice up proceedings, but he wasn't called."

"Just as well," he said. "By the way, I'm a witness next week."

Since every day I moan about the media anticipating - rather than reporting on - the news, I'm not even going to tell you the name of said friend, let alone predict what he will say, but all may be revealed next week. I can, however, share with you that the reason he was pleased that Trump didn't appear was because he is fond of Black and thought Trump would be a liability. And before anyone shouts that he will be a valueless witness if he is pro-Black, may I point out that almost all witnesses for the prosecution have had a pecuniary or career interest in doing down Black, while my at-present anonymous friend is an ex-employee with more to lose than gain?

I am a slave to my readers and had wanted a Trump performance to lighten up your lives, but I have to admit that if you're trying to persuade a blue-collar jury that a ruthless, narrow-eyed, Big Swinging Dick (look, I'm sorry if I've offended anyone with that vulgarity, but when writing about Rome one sometimes has to write like a Roman) is an innocent, it might not be a smart move to bring on The Donald, a man whose ego is even more startling than his internationally-renowned hair.

Trump was to testify that the birthday party for Barbara Black that was charged two-thirds to Black's company had indeed been largely a business rather than social event. My view - as expressed in this newspaper in April - was that since she had to sit beside the ghastly Trump (then doing a business deal with Black's organisation), the entire cost of the event should have been borne by the company, but clearly the defence thought that sheer loathing for the witness might have triumphed over logic, so he was pulled. More to the point, they seem to have decided that the jury has been bored enough and will be grateful if a minimalist defence means they'll get home soon.

I had also been breathlessly awaiting the testimony of Black's butler, Werner, possibly to do with recent revelations in court that Black's New York apartment housed inter alia $17,710 worth of marble elephants, a $12,000 three-drawer commode and the mahogany shaving stand Napoleon used while unsuccessfully invading Russia.

I think this was a row about what were fixtures and what were fittings (do you recall something a few weeks ago about Barbara Black allegedly making off with five enormous chandeliers?), but the reports are confused.

So instead of the promised, exciting witnesses, we mostly had a realtor who said that the price at which Black had bought his apartment from his company seemed OK, a tax-law expert who said there was nothing odd about the non-compete agreements and Patrick Ryan, a retired accountant from KPMG, who said he'd mentioned to the chairman of the audit committee that Black and other executives were making $15m on sales of company assets. "You were sitting at the same table with Governor Thompson?" asked his interrogator. "Yes," said Ryan. "Well, did he fall off his chair?" "No," said Ryan. "He remained upright."

Black was clearly as bored as everyone else, so he got involved in a row or two. He is livid about what the receivers have done to his companies (they are said to be about to sell off for almost nothing one of the last assets, mineral rights in a 130-hectare property in Saskatchewan) and last week, leaving the court, described them as "charlatans". There was also some unfinished business with former Canadian Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, who had refused to allow Black to accept a British peerage and therefore was the reason why he gave up his Canadian citizenship.

Chretien is about to publish memoirs in which he claims that Black offered to sit as a Liberal in the Canadian Senate if he was allowed simultaneously to sit in the House of Lords. "He started all this bunk," observed Black, last week, rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck into a powerful counter-attack. It's another issue that will run and run.

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn tells us, he was chit-chatting with Black outside the court the other day when a passing member of the public shouted, "Hey, Lord, we're all pullin' for ya!" Black's not my kind of guy, but I care about justice, so, dammit, I'm pullin' for him too.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards