CHICAGO: Conrad Black, who once presided over one of the world’s largest media empires, goes to court on Wednesday to determine if he and his associates stole millions of dollars as his conglomerate crumbled.
In what is expected to be a four-month trial in federal court in Chicago, the Canadian-born Black faces charges of fraud, racketeering, tax violations, obstruction of justice, and money laundering.
Three former associates of Black’s at Chicago-based Hollinger International Inc. and its Canadian holding companies face fewer counts. Black, 62, could receive a 101-year prison sentence and more than $50 million in fines if convicted.
Black, who once controlled a holding company with $2 billion in annual revenue, has branded the charges “a massive smear job” and pronounced himself ready for battle: “I want to face these accusers and expose this case for what it is,” he said after one pretrial hearing.
The defendants are collectively accused of siphoning off $84 million from the sales of newspapers and magazines that prosecutors say belonged to shareholders of Hollinger International, the media giant once controlled by Black.
The company, since renamed Sun-Times Media Group, has sold off hundreds of Canadian and U.S. newspapers as well as London’s Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post.
Black, a member of Britain’s House of Lords since 2001, is also accused of misusing the company’s money to finance a lavish lifestyle that included extravagant parties attended by celebrities at his homes in London, New York and Florida.
He is also charged with using a company plane to go to the South Seas for a vacation and company funds to throw a birthday party for his wife, conservative columnist Barbara Amiel Black.
Each of the four defendants has at least two lawyers, ready to rebut the prosecution’s key witness, former Black partner David Radler, who has pleaded guilty.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve scheduled opening arguments for Monday, but attorneys not involved in the case said the two sides are likely to be polarized in the type of juror they want.
“Because (Black) is such a flamboyant character there will be some jurors that will be totally intrigued by him,” said Rebekah Poston, an attorney who has defended executives in complex cases.
“I also think because he represents corporate America and life in the excess lane, there will also be a reaction ... by the conventional juror (who is) conservative, law and order, trusting in government, and damaged by prior corporate cases,” she said.
Mentioned as potential witnesses for or against Black are former Pentagon official and fellow neoconservative Richard Perle, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Illinois Republican powerhouse James Thompson, and real estate mogul Donald Trump.
The first three were members of Hollinger’s board of directors who may have been aware of the payments to Black and his associates. The case grew out of institutional shareholders’ objections to payments pocketed by Black and his co-defendants that precluded them from competing with media properties that they were selling off.
Trump may appear as a defense witness to say he discussed his pending purchase of the Sun-Times building at Lady Black’s surprise birthday party at La Grenouille restaurant in New York — paid for in part by $40,000 in company funds.