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Conrad Black’s greatest book yet.
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.
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