There are numbers you toss around, numbers you think you can prove, and numbers that won’t confuse a jury. Back in August 2004, an internal investigation by Hollinger International concluded that deposed execs Conrad Black, David Radler, et al had stolen about $400 million from the company. But when the federal indictment came down a year later, Black and et al (Radler turned state’s evidence) were accused of swiping only about $84 million, and that, or some approximation, became the number in play in the media right up to the start of the trial. Yet when assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Cramer began his opening statement Tuesday he told the jury, “You are sitting in a room with four men who stole $60 million.”

Had Black overnight become $24 million less guilty? If he could keep up the pace he’d be back in Toronto by the weekend.

The papers didn’t do much of a job of explaining what was going on. The New York Times simply said the change “seemed to reflect a decision by the government to no longer challenge one of the payments made to Mr. Black.” Mary Wisniewski and Natasha Korecki of the Sun-Times, which as a Hollinger paper bears the heaviest burden to get the story right, ignored what Cramer said and stuck with the $84 million.

And they should have: the prosecution was just keeping it simple. The $60 million allegedly disappeared in business deals in which all four defendants — Black, Peter Atkinson, John Boultbee, and Mark Kipnis — were working together. The prosecution still maintains that Black, sometimes working freelance, took a lot more. 

Underlining the meaninglessness of the $60 million figure as an actual measure of cupidity, there was Radler’s settlement last weekend with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Sun-Times Media Group, which is what Hollinger International has become. To satisfy civil claims, Radler agreed to forfeit about $50 million of his own money and another $42 million belonging to three newspaper chains he controls.