By: E&P Staff
Disgraced newspaper mogul Conrad Black should prepare himself for a long, hard time in the U.S. prison system — effectively a life sentence, says the lawyer who prosecuted Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.
But his defense team has a chance — a slim one — of keeping his sentence to less than 10 years, former prosecutor John Hueston said in a telephone interview Friday evening.
Prosecutors Friday told U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve that they will be seeking a term of 15 1/2 to 20 years when he comes up for sentencing Nov. 30. “That is even low,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Sussman said in court. “I’m taking the most conservative numbers.?
Hueston, now a litigation partner with the Los Angeles firm Irell & Manella, told E&P that Black’s sentence will depend on the amount of money it is determined he stole from the Sun-Times Media Group, known when he was chairman as Hollinger International.
If the defense can argue that the loss is in the “single digits” in millions of dollars, his sentence is likely to be in the single digits of years, Hueston said. That would constitute a huge victory, considering the feds records in putting away white-collar criminals for long sentences, he added.
“But if the loss is in the tens of millions — he may be looking at the equivalent, for him, of a life sentence,” Hueston said. The prosecution alleged Black and his three co-defendants illegally pocketed $60 million, mostly in phony non-compete fees from the sell-off of Hollinger’s community newspapers in Canada and the U.S.
“At the end of the day, that’s still a whopping amount of money — and more than enough to send people to jail for the rest of their life,” he said.
In general, Hueston said, the defense did a great job against a government case he called “vulnerable.” Prosecutors made two strategic mistakes, he said.
First, they relied too much on the uncorroborated testimony F. David Radler, the former Chicago Sun-Times publisher and Black’s longtime business partner who pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud in the looting of Sun-Times Media Group and agreed to testify against Black and his three co-defendants.
Second, they made too much of Black’s flamboyant lifestyle, repeatedly bringing up a trip to Bora Bora and the lavish birthday celebration for his wife — both of which the mogul largely expensed to the company.
“The government’s efforts to put Black’s lifestyle on trial almost undermined the entire trial, as it did with Dennis Kozlowski’s first trial in the Tyco case,” Hueston said. “By acquitting Black of the counts accusing him of fraud in using company funds to pay for lavish parties and perks, the jury signaled rejection of the theory that Black was motivated by greed to commit crime. This is the concern that we had in the Enron trial and what caused us to avoid putting the defendants’ lifestyles on trial.
On the other hand, Hueston said, the defense ran a smart case — especially by keeping the imperious Black off the stand.
“People always second-guess after a conviction (saying), ‘Oh, you should have put him on the stand,'” Hueston said. “Here, that was absolutely the right call. It’s even easier to say that when Conrad Black is caught flipping off the press through a window. What would he have done under a tough drilling, under interrogation? He would have exploded.”