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.