The Conrad Black trial is a pretty big deal in Chicago. It’s huge in Canada, where the prospect of one of the country’s most notable citizens (or ex-citizens: he renounced Canada to take a seat in Britain’s House of Lords) facing charges in a foreign court that could put him in prison for the rest of his life has transfixed the press. (If you want to transfix a nation’s press, it helps if you once owned roughly half its newspapers.)
Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsweekly, has just published a special edition on the trial, which it modestly calls the “white-collar trial of the century.” As it explains, “What might have once blown over as an internal debate at Hollinger International about compensation and bonus payments, has instead blown up into one of the most captivating corporate scandals in decades. Conrad Black faces 14 charges–including mail and wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice–in a trial set to play out in a Chicago courtroom over the next few months. If convicted he could face 95 years in a federal prison, with no eligibility for parole. “Unlike other major white-collar criminal cases, such as Enron and WorldCom, this one is not about a company going bankrupt or investors being swindled out of their life savings. Rather, it is about a larger-than-life British Lord and press baron who–depending on who is to be believed–was either a fraudster corrupted by his own greed and sense of entitlement, or a businessman betrayed by his closest allies and persecuted by overzealous authorities.”
From a Chicago perspective, the highlight of the trial, which begins March 14 in federal court, will probably be the cross-examination of former governor James Thompson, who chaired the audit committee of Hollinger International’s board of directors and in theory should have stopped the financial irregularities Black’s accused of before they occurred. Black’s going to contend that his home was elsewhere and so was his mind (on the FDR biography he was writing, on Britain’s affairs of state, etc), and that he left business decisions to the judgment of two men in Chicago who failed his trust–David Radler, the former Sun-Times publisher who’d been Black’s business partner for decades until he turned state’s evidence against him, and Thompson.
Maclean’s reported in February that “despite an abundance of evidence suggesting a pattern of lax oversight at the very least,” Thompson and other high-profile directors “were allowed to quietly tender their resignations and walk away from the mess.” Shareholder Chris Browne, who triggered the internal investigation that brought down Black, isn’t happy about that. “They got off scot-free and that’s a real tragedy,” he told Maclean’s. “They will all claim ‘we were misled.’ Well you can’t be misled if you don’t ask any questions. They never asked. They said ‘yeah, okay, whatever you want. That’s fine. Can I have some more Claret? What’s for lunch?’ ” Maclean’s treatment of Black is impressively balanced and sympathetic–no surprise, I guess, given that Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel, is a regular contributor. To get up to speed, click here and then search for Conrad Black.