By: Mark Fitzgerald
At first sniff, the Web site www.supportlordblack.com has the piquant aroma of the satirical weekly The Onion.
Established by the “Ad Hoc Committee for Conrad Black,” the site declares that it supports “one of the rare sovereign individuals to have risen above the morass of envious mediocrity that is his home and native land.”
The committee lards it on Lord Black of Crossharbour, who is battling “grandstanding U.S. prosecutors,” and a press that is “hostile,” and, wait for it, “left-wing.”
“More than that, (the site) is our grateful and long overdue acknowledgement of His Lordship’s life’s struggle to confront, with unflagging courage, the Brobdingnagian forces of Canadian small-mindedness, parochialism, mediocrity and failure,” the committee declares.
And it’s not just the fulsome, in the literal dictionary sense, praise — a wonderfully over-the-top William F. Buckley-esque romp through the thesaurus — that makes you suspect a Great White North incarnation of Stephen Colbert is at work. There’s also the invitation to an “On-to-Chicago Caravan” in a chartered airplane from Toronto to the city where Black begins trial March 14 in the Everett Dirksen Federal Building. Details, naturally, to be announced later.
Then there’s one of the those fundraising thermometers for “purely symbolic financial pledges.” The thermometer tops out at $3 million, Canadian presumably (US$2.59 million, according to the Financial Times’ handy currency converter). Monday night, pledges had reached $1.5 million.
Lord Black, the ad hoc committee says, would stoutly refuse any such real aid, b-u-u-u-t, as it asks visitors: “How much would you be willing to contribute to help fight what is already a profoundly disturbing miscarriage of justice, in the highly unlikely event its primary victim should some day need and accept financial assistance? Let Lord Black — and the world — know how much the principles he unflinchingly defends matter to you.”
They’re kidding, right?
“Yes, we are utterly serious,” the committee’s chairman, Alastair Smith, wrote in an e-mail to E&P Monday night. “We set up this website because we admire Lord Black’s considerable accomplishments and his take-no-prisoners style: It’s so un-Canadian, which is something we feel Canada needs more of.”
As first reported by Scott Deveau, writing in the Financial Post section of the Canadian national daily the National Post, Smith, 32, works in Toronto’s financial markets. He says he and the others on the committee are not personal friends of Black, though he sent a “supportive” e-mail to the site.
Smith told E&P the committee is disturbed by two issues as trial approaches. First, there has been no place for people to express their support of Black.
Secondly, well, let Smith tell it: “(T)wo, that the chances of his Lordship receiving a fair hearing in the country that acquitted O.J., that is still looking for payback over Enron, etc., and that seems, above all, to prize abject ignoramasuses as jurors, are not good.”
Black faces a “show trial” in Chicago, he added. “It would seem the man will be tried as much for using big words and for his wife’s shopping habits as for any corporate malfeasance. That’s not justice.”
As for the “On-to-Chicago Caravan,” Smith said 22 people have already signed up for it, “and more are joining each day.”
Smith’s Web site approvingly quotes other like-minded figures such as Ayn Rand, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Maggie — excuse me, Baroness — Thatcher.
But Conrad Black is the real star here, and the site interestingly quotes just as approvingly some of the things he has said that his many critics use against him.
One example is from the speech at the Hollinger International annual meeting when, like Nicolae Ceausescu making a final oration before Romanians who at last dared to jeer him to a fatal retreat, then-Chairman Black dismissed the growing number of shareholders who suspected something was seriously amiss with the way he and lieutenant F. David Radler and a coterie of insiders were running the newspaper publishing company. “Like all fads, corporate governance has its zealots and its tendency to excess,” Black told shareholders. “We will do our best to ensure that the corporate governance crusaders don’t inadvertently throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Of course, if you believe the exhaustive investigation by the special committee of Hollinger directors, Black and cronies were not just throwing out the bathwater, they were selling the baby to Gypsies. In a 513-page report, the committee alleged Black, Radler and others ran a “corporate kleptocracy” that “looted” Hollinger Inc. of more than $400 million. Black famously called the report ?a massive smear job from A to Z.?
Compared to those sweeping allegations, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is aiming low in Chicago. The government?s case contends Black?s crew improperly pocketed $87 million in phony ?non-compete? fees as Hollinger sold off its community newspapers.
Black has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, money laundering, wire fraud, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice — which carry combined jail time of 101 years. Three other former Hollinger executives — Executive Vice President Peter Y. Atkinson, CFO John “Jack” Boultbee, and General Counsel Mark Kipnis — are Black?s co-defendants, and have also pleaded not guilty.
Unfortunately for Black, his long-time right-hand man Radler has pleaded guilty in exchange for a shorter prison term that will likely be served in Canada. Radler has agreed to testify against Black and the rest.
So has Ravelston Corp. Ltd., the Toronto-based holding company that was a key entity in the complex corporate web Black used to control his newspaper holdings. Over Black?s objections, the holding company, now run by a court-appointed receiver, agreed to a plea bargain involving a fine and a pledge to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors. Black is appealing in a Canadian court to overturn the plea bargain.
In another blow to Black, the no-nonsense judge overseeing his trial, Amy St. Eve, ruled Monday that jurors can hear about the Hollinger special committee?s conclusions that Black et al stole with both hands.
All this evidence will be weighed by a jury, of course, and Black at this point — while on something of a losing streak as far as the extensive civil and regulatory litigation goes — has been convicted of absolutely nothing.
And it should be said that supportlordblack.com is clearly not the only outpost of support for Black. Just about every time I write about Black these days, I get at least one e-mail, always from someone Canadian, who argue variations on a single theme: The media and prosecutors are piling on in an unseemly way.
So Conrad Black has friends out there, though they are perhaps not the friends in high places such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle he placed in Hollinger go-along board of directors. The recent book by celebrity biographer Tom Bower claims the former mogul has lost the support of the boldfaced names he attracted to social occasions at his London, Palm Beach and Toronto mansions.
It seems the common man is support the uncommon Mr. Black at the Web site of the Ad Hoc Committee for Conrad Black. ?We have received scores of supportive emails, including one from Lord Black himself,? Smith told E&P, ?although I must admit we are disappointed not to have yet heard from some of Lord Black’s more prominent past supporters and beneficiaries such as commentators Mark Steyn and David Frum.?