On trial in Chicago for fraud and racketeering, former Canadian magnate and British lord, Conrad Black has yet again reinvented himself.
Black is the son of a beer baron who began a newspaper empire in his 20s with the purchase of Quebec’s small-town Sherbrooke Record and who used his $7 million inheritance to take over $4 billion Argus Corp in the early 1980s. “Greed has been severely underestimated and denigrated, unfairly so, in my opinion,” he told writer Peter C. Newman shortly after, and it appears greed has landed Black in the docket box.
In 2003 Black stepped down as CEO of U.S.-based Hollinger International. In 2004 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reported a Hollinger committee had accused controlling Hollinger shareholders of transferring more than $400 million to themselves in the last seven years, according to CBC. In November, 2005 Chicago’s U.S. attorney’s office charged Black with eight counts of mail and wire fraud in connection with the alleged fund diversion from Hollinger International. He reached an all-time low when security cameras caught him and his chauffeur trundling 12 boxes of Hollinger files out the back doors of the company’s Toronto offices.
And yet the man seems unperturbed.
Over dinner with Globe and Mail’s Patricia Best last month he was charming and rambunctious, Best said. Looking trimmed and tan, nearby women gravitated toward him, she added.
In a speech to the Empire Club in Toronto last October, the man who renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to gain a British peerage, did an about face, praising our country for its rich history and bright economic future.
Black, 62, is married to right-wing Maclean’s columnist Barbara Amiel. Black has been accused of using Hollinger funds to finance a stellar lifestyle for the couple. But this week American billionaire Donald Trump said he will give evidence in defense of Black, saying he considered a US$62,000-plus birthday party Black put on for Amiel at New York’s La Grenouille, and that Trump attended, to be a business event. Black charged back $40,000 of the party’s expenses to Hollinger.
More than 56 per cent of Canadians say they’ll follow Conrad Black’s American trial. Predictably, pollster Angus Reid says Canadian men over 55 “show particular interest in the case,” the Globe and Mail reported last week. The polling firm’s chief executive officer said, “the most surprising finding was the general lack of sympathy from Canadians for Mr. Black,” adding that renouncing his citizenship might have been a factor in Canadians’ displeasure.
I, for one, will be disappointed if Black gets put away. Not because he doesn’t deserve his karma for not only his alleged bilking of Hollinger but for carving to the bone many newspapers he owned in the 1980s and 90s. But the man is useful.
Firstly, he is a consummate historian.
He has stayed faithful to his roots as a Carleton University history major. His recent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is an insightful portrait. With a collection of private papers acquired for a princely sum Black boosted Roosevelt’s acumen by presenting him as “neither the guileless, patrician altruist that his admirers would like to portray, nor the dupe for Stalin at Yalta that his opponents portray,” Wikepedia states. “Rather, FDR is portrayed as a complex individual who was able to marshall the forces that saved the United States from the Great Depression and the world from totalitarianism in World War II.” His university thesis on Quebec’s Maurice Duplessis was also published in book form.
And, from a journalist’s perspective, he is gold for killer quotes.
In 1980 after critics skewered him for his leadership at Massey-Ferguson he said: I am amazed by the number of so-called financial experts who are luxuriating in the view that I am some sort of punch-drunk prizefighter on the ropes. Well, screw them.”
In 2001, after a row with Prime Minister Jean Chretien over aiming for a British peerage, he described his Canadian citizenship as "an impediment to my progress in another more amenable jurisdiction."
In 2005, in response to questions about his potential takedown, he told a magazine reporter: “I have no doubt that mothers in America use my name to frighten their children into eating their vegetables. But this is not a permanent state of affairs.”
And my favorite, in responding to reporters about Hollinger losses:
“I made 50 million bucks yesterday. That's a flameout I could get used to.”
Conrad Black, phoenix that he may be, could very well surprise those of us watching his fall and his rise, again.