‘What Nostalgia!’ Black Unfazed After One Week of Trial

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As Conrad Black’s racketeering trial ended week one, the former press lord and his family had to pass through a gauntlet of reporters and cameras outside Chicago’s federal courthouse.

One British reporter took it on herself to tell the former boss of the far-flung Hollinger newspaper empire that the reporters were merely trying to get a good story, saying, “You of all people should understand that.”

The 62-year-old Canadian born Black, now a full fledged British baron and known for his ready supply of extravagant verbiage, pondered a moment.

“What nostalgia,” he mused. Then he squeezed into his attorney’s waiting 2007 Cadillac Escalade and sped away, his sense of humor intact but battered after a week of fighting charges that he stole $84 million.

The opening of Lord Black’s trial has had its share of memorable moments. Proceedings misfired the first day over a juror’s absence.

That was followed by a contretemps in a courthouse elevator in which the defendant’s wife, the conservative columnist Barbara Amiel Black, described reporters as “vermin.”

“I lost my cool today,” she later said.

By the end of the week, prosecutors were showing jurors an April 2003 e-mail in which Black flashed his taste for baroque language.

In the e-mail, he jovially reassured Hollinger International directors Marie Josee Kravis and Richard Burt that he would quell the shareholder grumbling that would soon lead to his ouster as the company’s CEO plus a storm of investigations, lawsuits and the federal racketeering case.

“I will take on the task of hosing down shareholders in need of it as a matter of some priority,” he said in the e-mail sent to the influential directors, members of the Hollinger board’s audit committee, at 1:04 a.m.

In between, lawyers on each side tried to sell jurors on their version of exactly what it was that Black and three other former Hollinger executives – John Boultbee, Peter Atkinson and Mark Kipnis – had done.

Black is charged with dipping into the corporate till to pay for a Park Avenue apartment, a vacation in the Pacific island paradise of Bora Bora and a birthday party for Lady Black at New York’s La Grenouille.

But the most significant charges are that Black, Boultbee and Atkinson got rich – or at least richer – by selling off hundreds of Hollinger community papers across the United States and Canada and pocketing fees from the buyers in return for vows not to compete with the papers.

Prosecutors say the “non-compete” money belonged to Hollinger shareholders and not in the pockets of the three executives.

“It was theft, it was fraud, it was crime,” thundered Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey H. Cramer in his opening statement for the government.

Cramer dwelled on Black’s tendency to spout off in colorful fashion. In one instance, he said, Black brushed aside growing questions about the “non-compete” payments and fees Hollinger paid to a small, Black-owned holding company as “an epidemic of shareholder idiocy.”

“That proves nothing except that he has an arrogant attitude when he writes memos in the middle of the night,” shot back Edward M. Genson, the wily veteran Chicago lawyer who co-heads Black’s six-member defense team.

Genson then began the complex job of trying to talk Black out from under charges that could land him as much as 101 years in federal prison.

In his opening statement, Genson said most of the non-compete deals were negotiated by Black’s No.2 man, F. David Radler, while Black had been in London, running Hollinger’s Daily Telegraph and dabbling in politics.

While Black was concerned about eastern Canada and London, Genson said, Radler had full control over U.S. and western Canada operations.

Radler is expected to take the stand as the government’s star witness. He has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in exchange for a lenient 29-month sentence and $250,000 fine.

Trial watchers say that’s the key to Black’s defense.

“Genson’s strategy was to hammer home his general theme which is that Black had nothing to do with the United States transactions and no crime could have occurred because of all the lawyers and auditors and other professionals who were looking at the transactions,” says Robert W. Kent Jr., a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Kent would have been prosecuting Black had he not recently gone into the private practice of law. He says prosecutors must now pile up so much evidence that jurors will not be able to believe Genson’s version.

Veteran criminal defense attorney Rick Halprin, who is watching the case from the sidelines, says there’s no doubt about what comes next.

“The prosecutors have no choice but to go through it witness by witness,” he says. “They always pile it on and run up the score. There’s never too much evidence with them. They’re going to have 10,000 witnesses and six summaries of the charges and God knows how many experts.”

The job of piling on the evidence is already under way and continues next week with four businessmen and lawyers involved in some of the community newspaper sales are due to take the stand in a shortened, two-day week. Plans call for court sessions Monday and Tuesday with jurors getting the rest of the week off.

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