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Sunday 27 June 2010

I'm over the moon as Conrad Black's courage in the face of adversity pays off

The tide is turning for the former publishing magnate and it's not before time, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I'm celebrating cautiously a major victory for Conrad Black, about whom I've been writing since mid-March 2007, when his trial on 17 counts including racketeering and tax evasion -- reduced to 13 after much courtroom argument -- began in Chicago.

The 30-odd articles chart my journey (no, I refuse to eschew a perfectly good word just because along with ohmigod, amazing, pink and eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek! it's one of the vocabulary staples of female wannabe celebs) from dislike to admiration, as I became convinced that Black was innocent, and increasingly impressed by his courage and doggedness in the face of adversity and his refusal to kowtow to the tormentors, led by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who sees no shades of grey.

I've been corresponding with Black since December 2007, just after he was sentenced to 60 years on the only four charges of which he was found guilty: three of mail fraud and one of obstruction of justice (openly removing documents from his Canadian office in defiance of a court order from Chicago).

The first three convictions have just been seriously undermined by a unanimous ruling of the US Supreme Court that the statute, used by many zealous prosecutors -- which specifies that fraud can be committed by denying someone the "intangible right" to "honest services" -- was improperly used in the cases of Jeffrey Skilling, former Enron chief executive officer, and Black.

Passed in 1988 to nail executives who defraud their companies, the statute's definition is so broad it could cover someone stopping work to check the football results.

The judges haven't nullified the convictions, but they've sent Black's case back to the Appeals Court.

True, the three mail fraud charges could still in theory be upheld on another argument and the Supreme Court has expressed no opinion on the fourth, but the omens are good. Black is understandably elated. He will be even more elated by a generous recantation from the highly influential Wall Street Journal. "The Black and Skilling cases are precisely the kind involving high-profile, unsympathetic defendants in which willful prosecutors like Mr Fitzgerald are inclined to abuse the honest services law," read its editorial.

"They know the media won't write about the legal complexities, and they know juries are often inclined to find a rich CEO guilty of something. We regret that in the case of Mr Black, that failure of media oversight included us."

The distinguished author and journalist, George Jonas -- once married to Black's wife Barbara Amiel, and a close friend of the couple who stayed loyal when many others did not -- wrote eloquently this week of how the case against Black was built up. "I could see through the vicious innuendos, the attempts to railroad Conrad by piggybacking the case against him on fiascos such as World.com or Enron."

In what The Wall Street Journal would five years later call the "Enron political inferno of 2003", allegations of corporate misdeeds were pursued in the spirit of Salem.

The fact that Conrad's company, Hollinger, didn't lose investors a dime -- on the contrary, it made them billions -- didn't matter. When caught in a witch-hunt, not being a witch is no defence.

Witch-hunts result in witch trials. Conrad's detractors were on the move, spurting malicious gossip from every pore. Titbits about alleged high living, perks and corruption were being leaked to the press about Conrad and Amiel. When not called "right-wing" or "pro-Zionist" she was usually described in terms of Marie Antoinette. Stories about them ranged from the merely unfair to the absolutely baseless. In Ireland, we would do well to remember that not all bankers and property developers are witches.

Black will now apply for bail, but it may not be granted, and the Appeals Court could demand he be tried all over again or keep him in jail on the fourth charge. What is important is that he is strong enough to deal with whatever fate goes on throwing at him.

"It would be very disappointing, though quite survivable, if they didn't find for us in any aspect," he emailed me last week before the Supreme Court judgement. But then he is an historian who takes a long view, and a religious man of an optimistic nature.

The first time I wrote, I asked Black why Cardinal Newman meant so much to him and he quoted from the end of the famous sermon, the Second Spring: "We mourn for the blossoms of May, because they are to wither, but we know withal that May shall have its revenge upon November, in the revolution of that solemn circle that never stops, and that teaches us in our height of hope ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation never to despair."

It's worth committing to memory.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards