Former newspaper baron Conrad Black compared himself with privileged aristocrats of the French revolutionary era as he wrestled with the high cost of using his company plane, U.S. federal prosecutors said Monday.
“There has not been an occasion for many months that I got on our plane without wondering whether it was really affordable,” Black was quoted as saying in papers filed in his racketeering and fraud case.
“But I’m not prepared to re-enact the French revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility,” he is quoted as saying in an August 2002 e-mail after questions arose about his use of the plane for a vacation.
“We have to find a balance between an unfair taxation on the company and a reasonable treatment of the founder-builder-managers,” he allegedly added. “We are proprietors, after all, beleaguered though we may be.”
Black’s alleged remarks were quoted in an 81-page outline of the government’s case against him and three other defendants, submitted Monday to U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve in Chicago.
Black is charged with plundering millions of dollars belonging to shareholders of newspaper holding company Hollinger International Inc. He also is charged with misusing company money to bankroll his lavish lifestyle and cheating on his taxes.
A message seeking comment was left Monday night at the Toronto office of Black’s lawyer, Edward Greenspan.
Black’s comments about the cost of the plane were made after he used it to take his wife, Barbara, on a vacation in July and August 2001. They travelled to Bora Bora in the South Pacific from Toronto, and then to Seattle for a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Seattle Opera before returning to Toronto.
The cost was put at nearly $600,000 US.
According to the government’s document, Black had Hollinger International pay half the cost of the trip and charged the rest to a Toronto holding company that he controlled, Ravelston Corp.
In an August 2002 e-mail to Hollinger lawyer Peter Atkinson, a co-defendant in the case, Black is quoted as saying he had just learned “there is some plan afoot to charge me $600,000 for my ill-starred trip to Bora Bora. Needless to say, no such outcome is acceptable.”
“But what is the real story?” he is quoted as asking. Atkinson replied that the company had decided to pay but give Black a document to show that he had received the benefit, apparently for tax purposes.
The freshly filed court papers also provide a detailed accounting of how Black and a group of fellow executives sold off a number of newspaper properties belonging to Hollinger International, which he controlled through a Toronto-based holding company, Hollinger Inc.
As part of the sales, some of the executives were paid by the buyers for signing non-compete agreements. According to the court papers, Black’s share of the non-compete money totaled $19 million US.
Black has pleaded not guilty to the charges; the case is due to go to trial in March.
Hollinger International’s holdings once included The Daily Telegraph of London, The Jerusalem Post and Canada’s largest newspaper group, the former Southam chain of big-city dailies.
Hollinger sold the Southam group to CanWest Global Communications of Winnipeg for more than $3 billion nearly six years ago.
The Chicago Sun-Times is the last remaining major property of the Hollinger company, now called the Sun-Times Media Group Inc.