How strange it is that success can be such an impostor and only a warm-up for the main act of self-inflicted tragedy yet to arrive.
When Lord Kylsant of Carmarthen lost all hope of appeal in 1931, the wealthy titan was taken off and spent the next year in London’s bleak Wormwood Scrubs prison. Until Conrad Black, he was the only member of the British House of Lords ever to be convicted of fraud in the management of a publicly traded company. While prison was a stunning downturn for this Napoleon of the seas, as he was called for the formidable shipping empire he created, he had a private cell and was permitted to have his meals brought in from a first-class caterer.
Conrad Black, the first British peer to be incarcerated in the history of the United States, will not be so fortunate. There will be no privacy in his lodgings at the federal correctional complex at Coleman, Florida, and his meals are unlikely to be catered by his favorite Palm Beach restaurants.
He will doubtless persist in proclaiming his innocence on all charges and maintain that full acquittal on appeal is a virtual certainty. In reality, the man who often sounds like some character out of Charles Dickens, and not one of his more sympathetic protagonists at that, stands a greater chance of stringing all his prodigious and weighty words together and scaling down from his prison window past the unsuspecting eyes of his less than erudite guards.
There would have been many steps that could have been taken along the way to avoid the hard thud of the prison gates that swung closed behind him today and will remain so for most of the next 78 months. Much less brilliant men might have taken those other paths. One of the many mysteries that masks Conrad Black is why he did not.
He has spent considerable time over the past few years describing his role as a “freedom fighter” and threatening to take on the cause of prosecutorial overreaching. His friends claim that becoming an anti-corporate governance zealot remains a distinct possibility for this man of many talents. Whether anything will come from his newfound role as the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter of wrongly convicted corporate felons is yet to be seen. A predicate for such interest in the abuses of the criminal justice system or the plight of the less fortunate has never figured prominently in Conrad Black’s writings or those of the high profile friends that now rail at his injustice, for that matter. And it is a hard case to make that a man who has been able to spend tens of millions mounting the best legal defense possible -tens of millions of other people’s money via the shareholders of the former Hollinger International- was disadvantaged or the victim of abuse by the legal process.
A case can be made, however, that there was a greater transgression at work here than the one for which Conrad Black was convicted. For many years, hundreds of millions in fees and payments were siphoned from Hollinger and paid to Ravelston, the private holding company run by Black and Radler, which itself turned out to be a corporate felon. The outrage is that those payments were fully approved by Hollinger’s board without batting an eye. Yet most directors, according to company documents, didn’t understand why the payments were being made or even the purpose of Ravelston. Corporate governance at Hollinger was little more than a social club where directors partied and ate fine lunches and in the end seemed to have little energy left to do anything more than lift their Conrad Black-supplied rubber stamp with the word YES emblazoned on it in baronial font.
There were also the injustices of the $20 million bill that the internal investigation of Hollinger chalked up under Richard Breeden, and the subsequent corporate welfare program that the Hollinger group became for lawyers, management and directors who always had their hands outstretched for another check while in effect presiding over the disintegration of the company. The fact that no laws were broken by these actors in no way lessons the outrage their actions represent.
The greatest “crime”, however, is reserved for the man at the top. In that category, one looks not at a breach of securities laws or federal codes but at the larger offense of a person who squandered the rare opportunity to influence the course of events and make the world a better place for it. Law breaking by men and women whose lives were stacked against them from the start, while never excusable, is perhaps easier to understand. When all you have known is crime and criminal influences from an early age, the ability to find a better path is strewn with obstacles. But when there is the gift of affluence and privilege from birth and great wealth, fame and power amassed along the way, as there was for Lord Black of Crossharbour, the road taken to crime offends the senses of civilized men and women to the core.
So disconnected from the facts that led him to this latest step in a progressive march downward, Mr. Black writes in today’s National Post:
We have a Toronto court to thank for the massive and misleading exposure that the grainy security film that caused me to appear furtive, has caused. We have the same court to thank for a number of other unjust decisions.
So now it is the “graininess” of the security film that caught him removing the boxes from his Toronto Street office that is the culprit, along with a string of other players from investors to prosecutors. It is they who are responsible for his fate. Not him. Never him.
I am well aware of the capacity of courts, agencies and commissions to act incorrectly when it comes to the rights of individuals. Often it is out of a lack of competence. Sometimes it is the result of malice. I have strongly condemned such conduct in the past. I wish we had heard from Mr. Black and his newspapers on this subject in the past. It might have helped to avoid a number of lives being ruined. But as I have noted above, injustice rarely befalls those with vast resources to pursue their rights in the avenues of both the legal system and the court of public opinion. And if I believed for one moment that Mr. Black had been disadvantaged by a significant manifestation of bias in the legal system, I would be the first to come to his defense. To whom among the unjustly treated, other than himself, has Mr. Black ever come to the defense?
One also is prompted to wonder, if Mr. Black has so many important facts to marshal in his defense, which are voluminously detailed in his column today (and how many other convicted felons do the publishers and editors of the National Post permit to make their appeal case in an Op-Ed column?) why on earth did he refuse to take the stand at his trial?
His Palm Beach mansion has more bathrooms than the accommodation he must now share with in excess of 180 fellow inmates. His address, which from birth included the more prestigious names in Toronto, New York, Palm Beach and London, will now be among the most infamous: the U.S. federal prison complex at Coleman. How ironic it is that the man who boasted that the prosecution’s case was “hanging like a toilet seat around their necks” may well end up cleaning such fixtures as part of his life as Coleman’s newest inmate. His newly acquired dog will have more freedom and live a life of greater splendor than will Mr. Black for the next several years. A man who has known the rarest of luxuries on the grandest scale will soon discover that the simple act of opening a refrigerator door for a glass of milk or taking a stroll down the street on a warm summer evening are things to be envied in the lives of the most common of individuals.
It is not just the contrast from a world of mansions, limousines and privileged society to one of bars, starchy food and shared showers that is difficult to grasp here; it is the reality of what might have been that will not now be; the unfulfilled accomplishments and potential successes of a man of uncommon ability, but regrettably of rather common criminal persuasion. Gone is the Argus empire he effectively inherited. Little remains of the newspaper domain he once ruled. Discarded in a foolish fit of pique is the Canadian citizenship he exchanged for a title and an ermine-fringed robe from another land. However responsible Mr. Black is for his fate, one cannot but ponder how strange it is that success can be such an impostor and only a warm-up for the main act of self-inflicted tragedy yet to arrive.
Mr. Black once boasted in a BBC interview that if he had to go to prison, he would wear the sentence like “a badge of honor.” There was no award ceremony evident as he arrived at the Coleman prison facility at noon today in a Cadillac with darkened windows. My father used to counsel that one of the tests of a bright person was the ability to make a sensible point without sounding like an idiot. Mr. Black is a bright man. On too many occasions over the past number of years in the things he has written and said (the “renunciation of the rights of the French nobility;” comparing federal prosecutors to “Nazis,” etc.), Mr. Black has sounded a few points lower than his IQ has been rated.
The tribulations that lie ahead for him will be significant, and the distress imposed on his family and friends is truly unfortunate. But the fact remains that in too many ways when Mr. Black has been the focus of hope and great expectations, he has disappointed and left those who have looked up to him feeling empty.
Conrad Black has enjoyed many honors in his life, some of which have been attached to his name. What he might have done with them and what his legacy might otherwise have been, will be a mystery forever lost in the mists of history unwritten. Overshadowing all of this is the fact that Conrad M. Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KCSG, who once reigned over an empire that saw the doors of kings, presidents and world luminaries open wide to him, is inmate number 18330-424, lord now only of his own bunk bed.
If there could be a less predicted or more bewildering turn in the life of a man, imagination fails to conjure up what that might be.
As of 8 pm EST, the Bureau of Prisons information posting regarding its custody of Conrad Black (below) had not been updated.
Of all the indignities Conrad Black has had to endure, much of them admittedly at his own hands, none has been more symbolic than to go from being lauded as a British baron to being dismissed as a piece of “baggage” by the company he once headed.
In our view, it has always been something of a race to see what would happen first: Mr. Black moving into his prison lodgings or the Sun-Times Media Group, successor to Hollinger International and owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, throwing in the towel.
Tired of trying to hold on by its fingernails (having paid out more than $100 million in legal costs, much of it connected with the criminal defence of Conrad Black et al, has not helped), Sun-Times Media has decided to put all its assets on the block. It appears that changing the name from Hollinger International to Sun-Times Media did not have the hoped for result. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the overarching concern is a transaction that would free the company from the “baggage” of convicted former owner Conrad Black. The lord of luggage? Mr. Black once paraphrased Mme. Cornuel, who proclaimed “no man is ever a hero to his valet.” How much sharper the sting when he not only has to carry his own valise into prison, but has become it in the eyes of former employees.
We have expressed some doubt about the management abilities of Mr. Black’s successors at the Hollinger companies, whatever they might be called. They have made some colossally bad decisions, not the least of which was to be a bottomless ATM for Mr. Black and his cronies in dealing with their legal problems. The company itself also continues to face substantial litigation costs, as both a plaintiff and a defendant. No new owner will want to inherit that mess.
The board of Sun-Times Media has appointed Gordon Paris and Graham Savage, among other directors, to oversee the sale. We doubt that including members of the old guard, who have presided over Hollinger’s post-Black disintegration and are carrying more than a few suitcases themselves in the eyes of shareholders will help. But the move is about par for a company that has been very good at compensating its insiders while its investors have continued to see the value of their stock drift further downward toward oblivion. The stock, which in 2004 was trading around $20, currently trades at $1.47, well off its 52-week high of $6.94.
Never have so many directors of a single publicly traded company been convicted on criminal charges in connection with their duties as board members.
With the formal sentencing yesterday of F. David Radler today on one count of fraud following the prison terms set last week for Conrad Black, Peter Atkinson and Jack Boultbee, a formal record was set in the annals of modern corporate history. Never have so many directors of a single publicly traded company been convicted on criminal charges as were these four one-time directors of Hollinger Inc. (more…)
It may be better to let these damaged and discredited names sink ignominiously into the history books as a cautionary lesson to all stakeholders in how not to run a company.
The National Post recently took a look at the pitiable state of Hollinger Inc., and its subsidiary, Sun-Times Media Group, formerly Hollinger International. They call it the “untold story.” We have detailed many of the issues associated with Hollinger’s demise on these pages over the past year, but the most important point seems to have eluded the Post.
There has never been a publicly traded company with as many current and future felons sitting around the boardroom table as there was with the Hollinger group. (more…)
The same Napoleonic scale of misjudgments and miscalculations that have dogged his business decisions are now inexorably shaping Conrad Black’s legal destiny. It is one thing not to show remorse for the crimes of which one has been convicted; it is quite another to wear them as a badge of honor while striding into the courtroom on the day of sentencing.
The trial and tribulations of Conrad Black have occupied not an inconsiderable amount of space on these pages. We have tended to view him, unhappily, as a man who, though given every advantage that family, wealth and intellect can offer, has become better known for what he has lost and no longer holds than what he actually created. Now, as he faces the greatest loss of all –his liberty– it seems an apt juncture at which to revisit the depth of his descent. His situation is made even more precarious by his attacks –some remarkably strident– on the very legal system that is only days away from determining how long Mr. Black and his freedom will be estranged.
Under his unchecked control, a colossus of corporate Canada acquired by family connections and privileged access virtually disappeared. Argus, which once ran companies like Massey Ferguson, Dominion Stores, Standard Broadcasting, Domtar and Hollinger Mines became a name you read about only in Greek mythology. His newspaper empire, at one time the third-largest in the world, crumpled, leaving only the Chicago Sun-Times. The stock of what was once called Hollinger International appears headed for oblivion. In a single day last month, and for no discernible reason other than the general mess the company is in, it dropped in value by 23 percent to at slightly more than a dollar. The stock of Hollinger Inc., the corporate parent, trades for pennies. Its landmark headquarters at 10 Toronto Street, an icon of the Canadian business establishment, is also gone from his grasp, like the Canadian citizenship he once held but chose to forsake apparently for something bigger. And it is that very commodity –citizenship in the land where he was born, a rank which he held in common with millions of mostly ordinary Canadians and cost him not a penny, but which he chose to renounce– that may yet prove to be the source of his greatest misjudgment as he faces a long tenure in an American federal prison.
The Black touch of this most unMidas-like figure is seen elsewhere to varying degrees. Mr. Black was an outside director of now defunct Confederation Life, which, when it collapsed, was the largest financial casualty in Canadian history. And he served on the board of Livent, another disgraced and failed company whose founders face charges of accounting fraud and securities law violations in the United States and Canada. Ravelston, the private holding company he once controlled but which was established by a previous generation of business leaders who managed to stay out of the criminal courts, is not only a convicted corporate felon but has been ordered to pay $13 million in restitution to the shareholders whose money it unlawfully took. That is in addition to the $7 million fine it was ordered to pay last summer. To cap his business career, Mr. Black headed a board where four directors (Radler, Atkinson and Boultbee, in addition to himself) became convicted felons as a result of their crimes in the company they oversaw. Now, on top of the various honors and titles he enjoys in Canada and elsewhere, Mr. Black holds the distinction of having founded and run a publicly traded company that set a record in modern corporate history for the number of future felons it had sitting around the boardroom table. You don’t have to be a corporate governance zealot, a group which Mr. Black continues to rail against even at the eleventh hour before his sentencing, to realize that there is something staggeringly deficient in the character of a company’s leadership when it achieves this kind of milestone. Has there ever been a company so unlucky in its choice of directors? First, there was the Chicago four in the boardroom, then the hapless members of the audit committee who did not read or merely skimmed their financial reports, and finally the current crew that faces an onslaught of legal bills from the Black era now exceeding $100 million.
And yet with all of this, Mr. Black tells the BBC that he may consider a return to business in finance. “This is not an honour I sought, but it has been my honour to show the shortcomings of the plea-bargain system and the shortcomings of the corporate governance zealots” the British peer said in an interview.
Not even Lord Kylsant of Carmarthen, the towering British shipping magnate of the 1920s known for an even more towering ego –and, as we previously observed on these pages– the only British Peer beside Lord Black of Crossharbour to be convicted of fraud in a publicly traded company, displayed this scale of hubris. There was no second act for Lord Kylsant, in finance or anywhere else in society, after he was found guilty in 1931. He knew he was disgraced and at least had the good sense not to contemplate a return to the world of business where he was found to have betrayed the trust he held, much less openly speculate about it on the eve of his sentencing.
I do not intend that the foregoing be seen as anything approaching a tally of the full man. There are dimensions to Conrad Black, as there are to most people, that remain out of the public eye. Some may be reflected in his pre-sentencing submission to the court, which saw tributes and commendations flowing from significant personages. Mr. Black always portrayed himself as a proprietor, not some buy and flip LBO king. His mission was never understood or claimed to be one of selling off assets, but rather of building upon them and acquiring others. But his business achievements seem whittled down to a barely recognizable shell of their early beginnings, and nowhere near the potential that drifted into his early grasp.
Conrad Black sat at the very pinnacle of the Canadian business establishment and enjoyed every opportunity and honor it –and his native Canada– could bestow. Power, privilege and prestige were pretty much his birthright. But ultimately so much of what he has touched in business has turned from pure gold to black dust. More poignant than perhaps even what the law has declared he has done is the forever unfinished and unwritten chapter of what might have been.
It has been a painful spectacle to witness. The Napoleonic scale of misjudgments and miscalculations that have dogged his business decisions are now inexorably shaping Mr. Black’s legal destiny. With his torrent of emails, interviews, book signings and newspaper columns since his conviction in July, and now his internationally broadcasted musings about a return to business, it is hard to imagine that this is the same Conrad Black who had absolutely nothing to say to the jury in his own defence, when his words might have counted in the outcome. His combative tone and continuing attacks on the American legal system –a subject that never once moved his mighty pen before his personal legal problems began– may not cause his term in prison to be lengthened, but it is doubtful that they will assist in shortening it. It is one thing not to show remorse for the crimes of which one has been convicted; it is quite another to wear them as a badge of honor while striding into the courtroom on the day of sentencing. Why he was ever permitted by his fabled team of lawyers to steer his own bombastic ship into the legal minefield that holds his fate will always be a mystery.
When all is said and done by Mr. Black, it remains impossible to comprehend at what level of consciousness he is working. He cannot return to Canada or England. The court has ordered that he reside in either Chicago or Florida while awaiting his sentence. But in reality, it appears that Conrad Black is living in denial.
If Conrad Black is a great businessman, what and where is his legacy? Is it a thriving corporate empire, or is it just a Napoleonic ego exiled to some kind of legal Elba?
As Conrad Black awaits his fate at the hands of a federal court jury in Chicago, one can only hope that he and his colleagues will receive a just outcome. While I have a sense of what that outcome will be, I have declined to speculate about it for public consumption on these pages. It is a serious matter to have one’s freedom hanging in the balance, as Mr. Black and his co-defendants have. Neither the dignity nor the effectiveness of the process is assisted by pronouncements from armchair courtroom spectators.
There is a surprising interest, however, in the wider implications of what has been learned from the issues raised in the trial. I deal with the corporate governance aspects, and the failure of the guardians, watchdogs and gatekeepers, in Part 1 of this overview. As for Conrad Black himself, it is impossible to escape the public and media fascination with a man who has dominated the landscape for so many years and has done so with uncompromising zeal. Mr. Black’s trial has provided a convenient lens through which many have sought to gain a fuller picture of the person behind the headlines. He has encouraged the public curiosity by writing about the legal and human issues surrounding his case in his periodic columns in the National Post. (For nearly 20 years, my occasional Op-Ed columns were carried in the Financial Post. They never appeared again after Mr. Black took control of that newspaper.)
There will likely be little dispute that Conrad Black is one of the most interesting and intellectually gifted individuals ever to appear on the business scene. He was intriguing as a young fellow who lived in a Don Mills-area mansion, whom my chums and I would bicycle over to see from time to time in the 1950s, always feeling slightly dumber for the experience after we left. He remains fascinating half a century on. In a world where many CEOs are challenged to write coherently three successive sentences on their own, and seem to believe that the beginning of history coincided with their own birth, Mr. Black has written several sizeable historical volumes of scholarly acclaim. Most CEOs rarely have an original idea. Mr. Black has a whole closet full to which he adds on a regular basis the way Imelda Marcos added shoes. Most CEOs are rather one dimensional —or perhaps 2D, if you count their obsession with golf. Mr. Black is a multifaceted figure who has had the wisdom not to tempt that thief of time masquerading as 18 holes on nicely tended lawns.
But for all that I have admired about his larger than life presence, there is also larger than life disappointment. Mr. Black was afforded every opportunity at an early age, including the alacritous assistance of the all-connected and the impressively powerful. Yet, in the end, so much seems to have been squandered.
He was given every advantage —titles, position, money and the gift of a powerful intellect. He was awarded some of Canada’s highest tributes, including an almost unheard of elevation for a non-politician or government official to Canada’s privy council. That comes with the right to be called “the honorable,” which Mr. Black used to the hilt prior to his peerage reward, and a special passport which is claimed to smooth one’s way past snarly customs officials —or haughty head waiters.
Few had his connections or were set upon such a promising path paved by friends, relatives and mentors. He inherited a coveted place at the table of the Canadian establishment. Some might say he eventually took possession of the establishment. But if Conrad Black is a great businessman, what and where is his legacy? Is it a thriving corporate empire, or is it just a Napoleonic ego exiled to some kind of legal Elba?
The jewels of Argus —Massey Ferguson, Dominion Stores, Canadian Breweries, and even Orange Crush— have vanished. Mr. Black’s private holding company, Ravelston, the creation of E.P. Taylor, Eric Phillips and Wallace McCutcheon, is an admitted corporate criminal now controlled by a court-appointed receiver. He bought iconic newspapers like the Telegraph — he did not create them. They are gone from his empire. The one newspaper he takes credit for founding, the National Post, one might argue, has as much to do with the legendary Floyd Chalmers of Maclean Hunter as it does Conrad Black. Mr. Black bought the Financial Post long after it had been turned into a respected business institution by others and built the National Post on that foundation. It’s gone from his hands, too. Even the Hollinger name was the product of others. For many years it was a mining company controlled by Argus. Now it has shrunk to being little more than a check writing machine —for everyone except the shareholders. Lawyers and post-Black executives are making huge sums supposedly for reviving a debt-laden Hollinger. Even the company’s new CEO, someone by the name of Wesley Voorheis, is being paid nearly a million dollars a year from a company that is losing money while the stock languishes at an embarrassing 78 cents —and that’s on a good day.
That spinning sound you hear is the founders of Argus twirling in their graves over such ignominy. The ultimate symbolic indignity was the sale of the landmark Hollinger headquarters at 10 Toronto Street, long the seat of power for Mr. Black and his Argus forebears. Hollinger International also set about to create distance between Mr. Black and its principal asset, the Chicago Sun-Times. The company is now called Sun-Times Media Group, and they didn’t ask for Mr. Black’s permission.
Not all of these events can solely be attributed to Mr. Black’s failings. Some certainly can be. He has been at the helm of this empire for many years and there were, at the very least, doubtless turns in course he might have taken in order to avoid the legal and financial collision that has occurred. Sound judgment has not always been the most active part of Mr. Black’s character. Even his Canadian citizenship slipped through his overreaching hands as they preferred to clasp on to an honorific post offered by another land in a throwback to a by-gone era.
And, if it is shown that he is totally innocent of the charges against him, he has had to have set a Guinness record for bad luck. His personally selected directors have been the laughing stock of the boardroom world as a result of their courtroom performance at his trial. His long-time closest business colleague, David Radler, is an admitted felon for his criminal dealings at Hollinger. Even his private holding company, Ravelston, as noted above, pleaded guilty to a criminal count of mail fraud in U.S. federal court.
There were endless honors and awards for Conrad Black. But in a Black universe of boundless gifts, the potential of great and enduring accomplishment always seemed to be eclipsed —and defeated— by a larger sense of personal entitlement and a preoccupation that others were out to take advantage of him. He and his colleagues had to live in “a certain style,” as he called it, even while incurring the wrath of shareholders —however belatedly. Hollinger was his company, as he put it, an attitude which finally led to his ouster as its head. His obsession with having the noble title of another country caused him to give away his Canadian citizenship, which he now longs for and may wish he had before all is done. There were the Hollinger investors, whom he described as “ingrates.” A few years ago, it was all the shoplifters among the customers and employees of Dominion Stores who were nibbling away at his earnings. Servants (of whom he has many), he declared, were “a notoriously unreliable group, as any experienced employer of such people knows.” Then, of course, there were those pesky “corporate governance terrorists” of whom Mr. Black claims to be a “victim.” It is a self-image that recurs on a number of occasions in Mr. Black’s musings.
I believe Conrad Black has asserted he is a follower of the doctrine of Darwinian capitalism. Have you ever noticed that those who espouse a view of the survival of the fittest are generally those who have survived by starting out at the top? For one born to a mansion and who becomes the early protégé of one of Canada’s most prominent titans (Bud McDougald), who has every connecting door opened and every posh board seat reserved, it would take a special kind of talent to blow the establishment’s version of assisted living. Is this the Darwinian theory of which Conrad Black speaks?
This view of the world is not unique to persons of great wealth like Mr. Black. Charles Dickens wrote about them at some length, and the early 20th century produced a whole succession of such characters. It is nevertheless one of the more disappointing sides of those who hold themselves out to be champions of capitalism. It makes them smaller than they need to be in order to successfully fill that vital role.
Whoopi Goldberg once said Americans will forgive anyone for almost anything —except arrogance. The fact is that those who behave like sultans, whether from Brunei or The Bridle Path, are quick to attain the curiosity of the public but rarely, if ever, garner its respect and affection. Those might be attributes Mr. Black would wish to enjoy in the eyes of the 9 women and 3 men who now hold his fate. He may also hope that the jury will be more meticulous and attentive than his handpicked directors, as evidenced by the testimony of Hollinger’s breathtakingly inept audit committee members.
Whether he is acquitted or convicted, Mr. Black’s more historically enduring offense will be that he failed to live up to the extraordinary potential that fortune, family and providence showered upon him. He could have done so much more. He could have been an illuminating force in a time when people yearn for leaders who are smart, ethical and imaginative. That, in its best sense, is one of the important roles the aristocracy —a class with which he so clearly identifies— is supposed to serve. Instead, Mr. Black chose a path less bright. He seemed to thrive on attacking others with the sneering polysyllabic broadside that became his emblematic signature. There are occasions, of course, when healthy criticism is warranted, and we dispense our share at Finlay ON Governance. We are also on the receiving end of some. But one likes to think that powerful leaders can rise above the petty temptation to clobber others just because they are possessed of a superior vocabulary and have access to the public megaphone.
Mr. Black, it seems, has difficulty distinguishing the decidedly significant from the stupidly annoying. As a follower of some of the best military strategists in history, it is surprising that he never learned the first lesson of the successful general: to differentiate a trivial skirmish from a decisive battle. Greatness in a leader is measured as much by what he chooses not to do as by what he actually does. Restraint has always been a defining hallmark of power. It has been an irregular guest in Conrad Black’s life. He has mocked, chided and insulted virtually every party connected with his current legal woes, from the objecting shareholders and the SEC to the prosecutors at his criminal trial. And, even while they are deliberating on his freedom, he has been unable to resist imparting a sarcastic jab at the jury about their request for an exhibit related to non-compete payments.
Mr. Black’s career, as it relates to the handling of other people’s money in a publicly traded corporation, is, for all practical purposes, at an end. Who would entrust funds to someone who has articulated such a contemptuous view of the role of shareholders and acted in such a high-handed fashion when it comes to leading a board of directors? His actions have also poorly served the institution of capitalism of which he has spoken with glowing admiration. It will, of course, survive Conrad Black. But will it survive the era of excess which he has come to symbolize? It is a time which also coincides with the greatest concentration of wealth at the top in America since 1929. The danger is that the cumulative effect of these forces of greed and acquisitiveness, of which his trial has made Mr. Black such a well-documented example, may spark a backlash similar to the political intervention that reshaped the corporate and economic landscape of the 1930s.
One of the more amusing anomalies that seems to afflict so many of these self- proclaimed champions of capitalism is that their deeds often prompt conditions that stifle and undermine the freedoms of the very system they espouse. The public’s ire over perceived abuses at the hands of the privileged can ignite a firestorm of political action determined to redress the misconduct. Sometimes, it overreaches the target. Still, one rarely finds the objects of the concern willing to moderate their behavior. I suspect this is because they are less the genuine advocates of capitalism they claim to be than they are apostles of personal greed and self-interest —regardless of the consequences. They are content to have others pick up the litter they leave behind.
Mr. Black’s own words and actions create an unavoidable impression of the man. His Louis the XIV style pronouncements (“But I’m not prepared to re-enact the French revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility”), his Nixonesque email moment (“Nor will we accept directors that we do not have confidence will be loyalists, by which I mean conscientious, responsible, thorough, but well-disposed, like the incumbents, though obviously, I didn’t say that”), his stinging contempt for investors and his inability to tolerate criticism — all lead to the inevitable judgment that he is one more tycoon in the grandiose march of the garishly puffed up into the New Gilded Age, one more self-absorbed boardroom titan who had no time for corporate governance and then spent all his time dealing with the casualties of that miscalculation, one more celebrity for whom the public eventually tires of their tedious displays of self-indulgence and overweening ego. However his legal travails turn out, the inevitable conclusion is that, in many ways, the Conrad Black saga is another chapter in the widening sense of betrayal people feel about those whom they have admired, and even trusted, but who ultimately leave them feeling terribly let down.
Whether his fate is that of a free man or one faced with forced confinement, Mr. Black will soon begin to recede from the sphere of influence he craved and the media was happy to facilitate. One does not have one’s boardroom antics and backroom designs (“Dear Donald: Could I ask a rather esoteric favor?”) opened up to the rest of the world without consequence. Exile from the high councils of business and public life would seem a distinct possibility, as is the prospect of legal action of a different nature on the part of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ontario Securities Commission, regardless of the outcome of the criminal trial.
Napoleon, it is said, reflected from afar on some of the forces that brought an unexpected end to his career. He attributed his fate not to the strength of opposing armies but to something within his own character. “As soon as I made my debut,” the dethroned emperor is said to have confided to Las Cases, “I found myself rich with power, and circumstances and my strengths were such that, as soon as I was given command, I no longer knew either masters or laws.”
The curse of hubris and a misguided sense of personal invincibility has seen the downfall of more than a few emperors, presidents and, perhaps, an occasional press baron. Having arrived at this doubtlessly unanticipated point in his life, one wonders what, if any, insights into his own character Conrad Black is capable of assessing —or whether he will be content to leave that to other historians.