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Sunday 22 July 2007

No gloating over Conrad Black's fall

THE coverage of Conrad Black's downfall was dominated by headlines about 'Lord Greed' and 'Lord Fraud', words like arrogance, disgrace and hubris and reminiscences of allegedly criminal extravagances of which, in fact, the jury had found him innocent on Friday 13.

To remind you, Black was found guilty of only four of the less important of the 14 charges originally made against him: the three fraud charges amounted to less than $3m of the $60m he was alleged to have stolen, and the obstruction of justice conviction still baffles me. How could he have been convicted in Chicago for having removed boxes from his own Canadian office?

BLACK WEEK: Disgraced press mogul Conrad Black leaves court accompanied by his wife Barbara Amiel and daughter Alana

Of those comments that bucked the sanctimonious trend, I liked that of Kim Fletcher - who once worked for Black - in the mainly gloating Guardian.

"Before jumping gleefully on his corpse, we might ask whether the shareholders in the companies he created have ultimately benefited from his downfall, whether he was good for journalism in expanding the quality, staffing levels and reach of the Telegraph titles, and whether he was well served by the famous men and women who took his dollars to sit on his boards, but sat on their hands when anything fishy was put in frontof them."


And as one or two others pointed out, to compare a man who created and improved newspapers with Robert Maxwell, who corrupted the Mirror and ruined its pensioners, is grotesque.

None the less, Black's in bad trouble, with civil casesalleging mismanagement and embezzlement to the leftand right of him, investigators chasing around the globein search of possible hidden assets, and a vindictiveprosecution.

On Thursday, Judge Amy St Eve had to decide how Black would spend his time before being sentenced on November 30. Would he, as the defence wanted, go to his home in Toronto, where so many of his friends are, or would he, as the prosecution wanted, go to jail forthwith, on the grounds that he might skip his bail, which now amounts to around $37m?

"Black's conduct from the outset of these proceedings," said Eric Sussman, the chief prosecutor, "has demonstrated a lack of respect for the conditions of his release and the entire judicial process."

That was hardly fair, commented Black's faithful friend, Mark Steyn. "Conrad Black is only in his present predicament because of his love of America and therefore, when his tribulations began four years ago, an undue faith in the integrity of its judicial process." Had he not had an "excessive respect for the US justice system", he'd have done a runner.

"It's hard to see, say, Switzerland extraditing to the US for something that wouldn't even be a criminal case in Geneva or Lucerne, never mind one commanding a century in jail." It was because of his "touching and naive love for America [and] its law" that he was now "in the well of Judge Amy's courtroom and faces the prospect of never seeing his home in Toronto again."

"My concern is not that he will run and hide," said the judge. "That would be contrary to everything I'veseen of his character. Myconcern - and this would be consistent with what I have seen throughout this trial - is that Mr Black would fight extradition."

Even as a born-again Black sympathiser, I can't argue with that. Last weekend he said in an email that he was moving on "to the next phase in this long war". Like "a soldier conscripted for a foreign war, you fight till you win, and then you come home". If the Almighty gave Conrad the thumbs down on Judgement Day, He'd probably find himself threatened with a law suit.

After some wrangling, the judge said Black could stay free but be confined to Chicago or his heavily mortgaged house in Florida, which has provided the bulk of his bail bond, but on August 1 she will consider his finances in more detail, along with various suggestions from the defence as to how he can guarantee that if he goes to Canada he won't try to stay there.

Not that Canada is likely to be that welcoming. Having given up his citizenship to take a British peerage, Black relies on a temporary resident's permit.

"I think the judge is a very reasonable woman," said Eddie Genson, Black's big Chicago defence gun, who will fight on for Black, but who soon needs to turn his attention to the defence of the black R&B singer and songwriter R Kelly, who is charged with 14 counts of child pornography.

(Anyone who accused Black of megalomania should get some sense of perspective from Kelly, whose modest claim is: "I'm the Ali of today. I'm the Marvin Gaye of today. I'm the Bob Marley of today. I'm the Martin Luther King, or all the other greats that have come before us.")

Patrick Fitzgerald (son of Irish immigrants), the US attorney behind the case, is a zealot who has been said to approach "every potential defendant as if they're a terrorist". This Robespierre among prosecutors is hoping that Judge St Eve will use the bizarre US practice of "acquitted conduct sentencing enhancement" massively to beef up Black's sentence if she believes he committed some frauds of which he's been acquitted. As far as Fitzgerald's concerned, Black and his co-defendants should be treated on a par with those who deliberately organised the Enron multibillion fraud.

In Russia, the oligarchs who stole billions from the state fled abroad to live in luxury, only now to be threatened with assassination on some foreign street if they annoy President Putin.

The British justice system is clumsy and slow in dealing with fraud. In Ireland, we have allowed criminals like Charlie Haughey to rip off the country unscathed. But while it's good that the US takes capitalism so seriously it wants to keep it clean, this should not be at the expense of justice and the common weal

The only people so far to have gained from Black's downfall are lawyers.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards