A Matter of Principle
By Conrad Black
(McClelland & Stewart, 581 pages, $35)
A big book by a big man, in many ways a man from another age–think of a character in Trollope’s parliamentary series or a John Buchan novel, a man who quotes Kipling in his final statement to the court; a man with an extraordinary range of knowledge who has lived an extraordinary life–dreaming as a boy in Canada of following in the footsteps of the great press lords, realizing that dream, and then, drawn into the increasingly corruptible legal system in the country which he admired above all others, having it all snatched from him. This book is a cry of pain and a hard-eyed and detailed indictment of that legal system, from U.S. attorneys to our federal prisons. But it’s much more than that–an account of doing business in a dying industry; a celebration of a life well-lived; sketches of people from British royals to inmates, drawn with a mannerist’s eye; a love letter to his wife; a calling-to-account of those who sold him out; and an expression of gratitude to those like Bob Tyrrell, thanked in the dedication of this book, who stood by him.
Writing last year from Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, Conrad Black, prisoner 18330-424, once one of the world’s most prominent publishers of English-language newspapers, among them the Jerusalem Post, Daily Telegraph, and Chicago Sun-Times; founder of Canada’s National Post; and author of three well-received books, including the fairest biography of Richard Nixon yet written, frames his story this way.
I am sixty-five years old. I entered these walls a baron of the United Kingdom, Knight of the Holy See, Privy Councilor, and Officer of the Order of Canada….In December 2007, a courteous federal district judge in Chicago sentenced me to seventy-eight months in a federal prison…I was convicted of three counts of fraud and one of obstruction of justice, all of which I am innocent. Three charges were dropped and nine led to acquittals….For the last six and a half years I have been fighting for my financial life, physical freedom, and what remains of my reputation against the most powerful organization in the world, the U.S. government.
For years I was widely reviled, defamed, and routinely referred to as “disgraced” or “shamed” and “convicted fraudster.” (This was the preferred formulation of the London Daily Telegraph, of which I was chairman for fifteen years.) In light of my rapidly improving fortunes, most of my less rabid critics are now hedging their bets. Whatever happens, this will not be the end of my modest story.
That story turned grim in 2005, when federal prosecutors, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, out to add a big one to his collection of scalps (Scooter Libby, former Illinois governors George Ryan and yet-to-be sentenced Rod Blagojevich, and some Daley machine functionaries among them), brought 17 charges of corporate criminal misconduct against Conrad Black, seeking life imprisonment and fines and restitution totaling $140 million. But as the case ground on, charges were dropped or rejected by jurors, and four convictions were vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2007, he was sentenced to 78 months in prison, but was released on bond in 2010 as his appeal reached the Supreme Court. Judge Richard Posner’s appellate panel, whose findings were criticized and vacated in a unanimous decision, restored two counts. Black was sentenced to 13 more months, which he is now serving in Florida at FCI Miami.
From the beginning, Black’s case smacks of the pettifogging complexity of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Dickens’s Bleak House, complete with an unsavory cast of characters such as David Radler (a.k.a. the “Rat”), a turncoat who sold him out in exchange for a soft sentence, of whom Black writes, “his behavior was the greatest personal disappointment I have ever suffered, as pathetic as it was contemptible”; pompous legal figures swollen with self-importance, among them Judge Posner, “an inveterate seeker of publicity…whose judgments were extremely unrigorous” and who was chastised for the quality of those judgments by the U.S. Supreme Court; and prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald, “a zealous fanatic and a threat to justice by any definition.…It was an honor to engineer the voiding of the Honest Services Statute that he and other prosecutors had used as a catchment for anyone they targeted.”
Black zeroes in on the whole system of criminal justice, especially as practiced in Chicago, and specifically in the way juries are chosen and the involvement of the mayor and the U.S. Attorney:
The foreman of the jury, whom we identified from his questionnaire as a supervisor in the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, as well as the owner of a insurance appraisal business…seemed to us commercially knowledgeable, a member of the junior grade of the Daley political machine and unlikely to be an unusually puritanical person.
Rumors abounded that he was going to produce some guilty verdicts in exchange for Fitzgerald’s getting off the mayor’s back, and some preferments for himself. After the trial, someone known to one of our allies engaged the jury foreman as a valuator, took him out for a few drinks and elicited his confirmation that the fix was in from City Hall. [Judge] St. Eve determined that the source was not sufficiently believable to take it further. The source perhaps was not, but the allegation was.
At his resentencing hearing in Chicago on June 24, 2011, Black reviewed the salient points in his case, speaking directly to Judge St. Eve: “I believe that even if a reasonable person still concludes that I am guilty of these two surviving, resurrected, counts, tortuously arrived at and threadbare though their evidentiary basis now is, that same reasonable person would conclude that I have been adequately punished. I only ask you to recall the criterion you eloquently invoked near the end of the trial that the justice system not be brought into disrepute by an unjust sentence.”
Many observers following the trial felt that if the legal establishment weren’t so reluctant to admit to misjudgment, error, or worse, and if the actors in the drama hadn’t been desperate to save face, those two “resurrected counts” would have been dropped, and Black would have walked free. But others believe it made no difference. Given the players, the fix was in.
Judge St. Eve, of whom he unfailingly speaks with respect, did depart from the federal guidelines calling for Black to be sentenced to between 51 and 63 months, citing his charitable work with his family foundation and letters from his fellow inmates at Coleman prison in Florida, where he had been generous with his time and assistance.
AND IN FACT, some of the most engaging writing in A Matter of Principle comes in the section in which he describes his fellow inmates and prison life, to which he adapted with surprising ease. He took the men there for what they were and wanted to be, and they took him for the man he was, totally confident in himself and in no way condescending.
One of the inmates, he writes, “was an ingeniously, spontaneously mischievous young man, whom it was hard not to like. He was imprisoned for burning down part of his school, an impulse for which I had some sympathy.”
“The top of the pecking order,” he writes, “appeared to be the few authentic Mafiosi. They were elegant, extremely courteous, even courtly, and had a sardonic sense of humor. On my first night, one of them said that mutual friends had said to look out for me, that I was not to be ‘bothered’ and wouldn’t be. If I caught ‘a cold, we will find out from whom’ and ‘that we have a lot in common.’ I surmised that he meant the comradeship of persecution by the U.S. government. He replied, ‘Yes, but more than that, we are industrialists.'”
He met several bank robbers, proud of their profession, “including one proud scion of a family of bank robbers, whose matriarch, his aunt, had robbed scores of rural banks, from the Carolinas, and had always arrived and fled on horseback.”
Child molesters were called “chomos,” and there was “an informal group of chomo-bashers,” one of whom was “a central Floridian, always friendly to me, at whose home police had allegedly discovered a severed human hand….He was a physically formidable man with a delightful sense of humor but was accustomed to beating or shooting those he disliked.”
“I became fairly friendly with some of the prominent African-American inmates. The leaders of that group were large drug dealers, legendary figures in their milieus.” The older African Americans, he writes, “were like stars of the old Negro Baseball Leagues, honored pioneers….Perhaps the most formidable was an old gentleman in a wheelchair, universally known as ‘Mr. Bobby.’…Despite his infirmity, he asserted himself, on one occasion chasing a white inmate out of the television room for changing the station away from one of Mr. Bobby’s favorite programs. He was wheeled by one of his acolytes while brandishing his cane like a Dickensian school master.”
“I was honored to be invited to address Black History Month,” he writes, “the first white inmate to do so.”
He was given a job tutoring high-school dropouts in the vocational department, and was rewarded by seeing a number of his pupils graduate. “Because of the pride of successful students and their families, and the applause I received, the graduating ceremonies were among the more moving I have attended.”
One of his students, “a twenty-nine-year-old African American with gold teeth and a shaved head who had the equivalent of perhaps a grade five education and had six children with five women…turned up religiously every day and worked his heart out. The day he learned that he had matriculated, he risked [punishment] by entering my cubicle, finding me at the computer, and embracing me. Rarely have I been so happy for anyone, or so happy to have been helpful to anyone.”
Black made the best use possible of those 29 months, exercising and losing 25 pounds, and, quite obviously, writing, often in French and code. But although he emphasizes the positive, his concern for those trapped in our system of justice runs deep: “It is an evil system…which in practice, as prosecutors win an implausible…95 percent of their cases, is less a due process than a demonstration of the force of gravity by the operation of a trap door when an accused is frog-marched into it.”
Nevertheless, he came through, and he did so honorably, with his sense of self and principles intact.
In a column written last year at the time of Black’s release on bail, Bob Tyrrell spoke to the central issue:
“If you have nothing else, you have your principles,” Lady Margaret Thatcher told me when things were pretty tough at The American Spectator in the late 1990s. Sharks were circling the ship, and there was blood in the water, and I was getting anxious. She was serene, having just returned from Beijing, but she was adamant. “You have your principles.’ They endure and fortify you when things are dire.”
So it is with Conrad Black. In his address to the court, he put it this way: “I have always tried to take success like a gentleman and disappointment like a man.”
And as A Matter of Principle demonstrates, that’s precisely what he’s done.