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Sunday 19 December 2010

Black confident he's ahead of the rest

For Conrad Black the appeals go on, but the media baron remains optimistic, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

HERE'S an end-of-year report on Conrad Black, who spent last Christmas in the Coleman Federal Correctional Facility in Florida predicting -- to jeers from his media enemies -- that he would shortly be released. In the event, after the US Supreme Court cast doubt on his three fraud convictions, having served 870 days of a six-and-a-half-year sentence, he was out on bail in July and back in his Palm Beach home.

BLACK IS BACK: Conrad Black, with his wife Barbara Amiel,
was released from prison in July. Photo: Reuters

Assiduous followers of the Black saga will know that he was originally accused of robbing Hollinger International of hundreds of millions of dollars, was eventually charged with fraud, racketeering and obstruction of justice and stealing $60m (€45m), was found not guilty of nine counts but guilty of three of fraud (involving $6m (€4.5m)) and one of obstruction of justice.

The Chicago Court of Appeal threw out two fraud charges but bafflingly upheld the third (involving just $600,000). Black is appealing that and may well win, but what looks harder to make go away is the accusation that he removed 13 boxes of documents from his Toronto office with the intention of impeding an investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This always seemed a particularly unjust accusation: Black had to vacate that office within six days, he heaved the boxes in full view of security cameras he knew were there, he said he had not been told of the SEC investigation and his lawyer couldn't remember telling him about it. He would have had to be a mug to have set himself up like that, and he isn't a mug. He is, however, a romantic, who may have had a rather fanciful notion about what a US courtroom might entail.

The appeals go on, as do his libel suits in Canada, where he's trying to sue an ex-SEC chairman and former Hollinger directors, including Henry Kissinger, for accusing him of operating a 'corporate kleptocracy' and of 'aggressive looting' of at least $300m (€227m). The Canadian Supreme Court is deliberating on an appeal from the defendants that the cases be transferred to the US.

I asked him recently how he kept his sanity amid all the legal hassle and he said it was a challenge, but he thought he was still ahead of the game. The buoyant tone of his journalism, interviews and emails certainly suggests a fighter at the top of his form. He's campaigning for the legalisation of drugs, and for wholesale reform of the prison system. The millions of jailed Americans are "an ostracised, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one's constituency". Imprisonment "is an insane, archaic and self-defeating treatment of non-violent offenders (especially when many other convicted people are in fact, by the nature of the system, as innocent as I)."

He's a root-and-branch critic of the UN, which "is corrupt and over-influenced by countries which are not morally or politically qualified even to sit in it ... a reinvigorated Security Council should undertake a comprehensive reform of the United Nations to convert it from the riotous unsupervised day-care centre it is now to the serious forum of promotion of responsible international law and co-operation it was intended to be".

Black is rough on the enemies of the Roman Catholic Church: "To the litigators, the editorial mudslingers, the deep, thick, serried ranks of militant scepticism, Rome is a Satanic bumblebee which infests the brave, aging secular world of utilitarian progress and the methodical human march toward a plenitude of knowledge.

"Earlier this year, they thought they saw the end, at last, of Rome's ghastly, tenebrous, saturnine magisterium that defies all laws of nature and reason by not simply crashing to the ground as the endlessly proclaimed laws of rational aerodynamics require. They were, as always, mistaken..."

The Spectator asked him for his predictions for 2011, which he thought "should have the virtue of predictability: the debt crisis will worsen until the US and the EU take substantive and not just palliative measures to combat it; Chinese economic growth will decline and its neighbours will more clearly focus on containing it; global warming hysteria will continue to abate; the need for military measures to prevent an Iranian nuclear military capability will be ever clearer.

"On a personal note, the prolonged legal persecution of me will finally collapse... and I will return to the UK, after an absence of six years, having launched a new business and a new book. I am looking forward to all of it."

So am I, Conrad. So am I.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards