WASHINGTON — Conrad Black is back in Canada. He controlled the third-largest string of English-language newspapers in the world before he became entoiled with the United States Department of Justice. For his friends it was a terrible loss. We missed him and we have missed his newspapers. He made the Telegraph papers in London a beacon of civilized discourse and a sound source of news. They provided better information on the high-jinks of Bill Clinton than any news source here, save the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and, ahem, The American Spectator. The Telegraph papers were great newspapers and his other publications, for instance, Spectator of London, were eminently civilized too. They still are, though they miss Conrad’s journalistic touch.
He got in a corporate imbroglio that became a nightmare for him. My comrade in arms Seth Lipsky of the New York Sun understands the ins and outs of it far better than I and claims Conrad was innocent. Who am I to doubt Lipsky? He knows the law. He studied the charges against Conrad, and has pronounced him blameless. Everything Lipsky says has the ring of truth to it.
Conrad’s problems began with minority shareholders in his company, Hollinger International, complaining about his expenses. Rather imprudently Conrad submitted himself to their investigations. They invited one Richard Breeden in as special investigator eight years ago. Breeden proved to be a man with an ax to grind. The product of his ax work was to charge Conrad with stealing more than $400 million from the corporation. By the time federal prosecutors took over the case that number was down to $80 million in charges. In court the figure was whittled down to $60 million. Finally, after years of dickering, Conrad at great expense to the government, to Hollinger, and to himself stood guilty of a fraud charge of but $285,000.
Through it all Conrad went to trial on 13 counts of which the jury acquitted him of nine counts. The most serious of those 13 counts were charges of racketeering and tax evasion. Conrad beat them all. The jury convicted Conrad on obstruction for obeying an eviction order from Hollinger and taking his property from his erstwhile office. Tom Wolfe summed up the jury’s behavior: “They had to get him for something.” It is a long way from $400 million to $285,000.
The other three charges on which he was found guilty involved “honest services fraud.” He went to prison on this charge and on the obstruction charge, but he hired a gifted lawyer, Miguel Estrada, who took the charges to the Supreme Court and got the honest services law overturned. That is about the only thing I can say that was good about the federal government’s proceedings against Conrad. We can thank him for eliminating the misuse of “the honest services” clause, but boy did it cost him. He spent a fortune on lawyers, lost his liberty, and his papers are all gone.
Last Friday, Conrad left his Florida prison and flew back to Canada. He will not be allowed back in the United States due to his conviction. He has been one of America’s most ardent defenders, but his days here are no more. He is up in Toronto sipping white wine, living in his handsome mansion surrounded by his family, and enjoying his freedom. How will he spend his time?
My guess is that, with a few comforts added in, he will spend it much as he spent his time in prison. He will write. While in prison he finished two major books and wrote innumerable book reviews and columns for the general press. He will lecture and travel. He will speak out on prison reform, most notably the reform of the draconian system that nailed him. Once the federal system focuses its attention on a private citizen, he is almost helpless to thwart it. Conrad came close but he missed and spent almost 42 months in the clink.
During his incarceration I kept in contact with him as did others. He maintained a vast correspondence. His spirit was amazing. He never complained. He was not spiteful. He was always upbeat, indeed jaunty. He was astoundingly resourceful both in his defense, which he took a hand in, and in his wide-ranging journalism. Bill Clinton envisaged a fate for me not unlike Conrad Black’s, for my pursuit of Bill in the 1990s. I am not sure I would have measured up.