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Conrad Black the Villain of His Own Book?

Conrad is candid in documenting how, when fortunes turned against him, former friends and allies also turned against him. Even at the, employees who owed their careers to Conrad, turned on him. If nothing else, Conrad Black seems not have been a great judge of character.
McClelland & Stewart

I've not read reviews of Conrad Black's new book, A Matter of Principle, but it's a remarkable work -- unlike any of its kind that I've ever read, and tells the story of his Chicago trial and subsequent conviction.

While that's the core of the book, Conrad (excuse the informality -- but that how many of us think of him) also tells the fascinating tale of how he acquired the Daily Telegraph, his surge to international prominence, the malice towards him generated by then-PM Jean Chretien, and finally his troubles at Hollinger and the vendetta waged Richard Breeden -- whose Special Report on Hollinger is presented as epic villainy.

In essence, the Breeden report destroyed a viable company, impoverished shareholders, and was profitable for 'regulators' who oversaw Hollinger's destruction.

Breedon is author of the "corporate kleptocracy" allegations against Conrad.

The ins and outs of Conrad's newspaper acquisitions are a labyrinth of complexities, and not to everyone's interest or understanding. Conrad seems to have total recall of everything, and he lays it out coherently and colourfully.

But it's the story of his Chicago, 2007 trial on 16 counts of fraud, theft, obstruction, etc. (reduced to 13 counts) that makes this 578-page book exceptional.

Conrad pulls no punches.

He analyzes participants in the trial with some brutality, enormous candor and considerable insight. His description of David Radler, his former partner who turned against him at the bidding of U.S. prosecutors, is soul-shivvering: "hunched, furtive, with darting, fearful eyes.... too distasteful to be pitiful... twitchy, timorous and bowed... misshapen by envy and insecurity that drove him to treachery and cowardice."

I covered much of the trial as a reporter, and that's a pretty accurate summation of Radler (whom Conrad repeatedly refers to as the "rat"). Precise, blunt, succinct.

Not even his own lawyers escape Conrad's candid assessments -- especially Eddie Greenspan, his lead lawyer, to whom he gives credit in some instances, and then savages at other times.

Conrad quotes the lead prosecutor, Eric Sussman (whom he describes as having "a crewcut top knot... compulsively darting eyes... hollow chested... all nose, mouth and fake shoulders"). Sussman refers to Greenspan as "an old water buffalo."

Among other criticisms, Conrad says, "Eddie Greenspan's methods were far too ponderous for the rapid cadence of American courts."

In this context he notes: "Greenspan appeared to have no idea how to deal with the objections technically, and no idea whether they were well founded or not. Sussman was like a hyena nibbling at the legs of a lumbering beast."

On one occasion Conrad says he asked Greenspan "very calmly 'to raise my comfort level about your ability to master U.S. procedure.'" Greenspan angrily flared up and said he'd return to Toronto immediately.

When told of this, Conrad's wife Barbara Amiel "thought this was a golden opportunity not to be missed... and had to be restrained from paying for a private flight to take him home that day."

That issue was ironed out, and Conrad acknowledges that Greenspan's cross-examination of members of the Hollinger audit committee -- former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, former ambassador Richard Burt, Economist Marie-Josee Kravis -- was a masterful emasculation that revealed them as either lazy, negligent, cowardly or untruthful -- or all four.

From Conrad's writings, it seems he was always second-guessing his lawyers, offering advice, recommending tactics, listening to his congenitally pessimistic wife who at times seemed to be unraveling and verged on panic. Conrad writes that Barbara and his daughter Alana repeatedly wanted Greenspan replaced.

Throughout, Conrad himself seemed a pillar of strength and composure -- even when giving impromptu press conferences to the occasional dismay of Greenspan.

In the Globe and Mail on Oct. 1, Greenspan had a full page article on Conrad's book, noting wryly that when he noticed he wasn't one of "thousands of people" Conrad thanked and acknowledged in his book, "that I probably wasn't going to like it."

In challenging many of Conrad's views, Greenspan said his health is fine (Conrad felt he was suffering the effects of diabetes). Greenspan was upset when journalist Mark Steyn wrote in Maclean's magazine that just before the case went to the jury, Greenspan and his American counsel, Eddie Genson, had "demanded a million 'bucks' each" from Conrad.

"The clear implication was that we had effectively extorted our client at a moment of vulnerability," Greenspan wrote. He wrote a letter to Maclean's calling the allegation "complete fiction" and e-mailed a draft to Conrad who, he said, agreed with him: "I think you are right to rebut the allegation. If asked, I will support your version of this."

However in his book, Conrad says "I was peddling away from the Eddies" and noted Steyn's "fierce diatribe... highlighting their lifting of $2.2 million from me just as the trial was ending.... It was the end of Greenspan's mystique."

This clearly wounded Greenspan. But it didn't stop there.

While noting that Greenspan "had been an able lawyer, a genuine friend and a true believer in the right of all to representation," Conrad added that: "The deterioration of such a man is objectively sad, and is made more so by the inelegance of his acts of denial and displacement of responsibility for his own shortcomings and aggressive paranoia.... His time is passing; I wish him well."

I admit to being shocked and puzzled at Conrad's harsh assessment of Greenspan, and also at Barbara's belief that Greenspan should be replaced. Conrad writes: "At one point... Barbara passed me a note suggesting that I interrupt proceedings and tell the court that there was a medical emergency that required Greenspan to withdraw... I ignored it, but it did betray the flaring nervosity in our camp, which I shared."

In my view Eddie Greenspan saved Conrad Black.

Conrad is candid in documenting how, when fortunes turned against him, former friends and allies also turned against him. Even at the Telegraph, employees who owed their careers to Conrad, turned on him. As did then likes of Henry Kissinger, Hal Jackman, Alan Gottlieb. A host of lawyers milked him for millions. People he put on Hollinger's board, turned on him -- sided with the prosecutors.

If nothing else, Conrad Black seems not have been a great judge of character.

Kissinger (and others) now, apparently, want to be friends again. And Conrad is apparently agreeable. In this, he's more generous than many would be.

At Conrad's trial it was Greenspan who destroyed the audit committee's efforts to support the prosecution's contention that Black should be imprisoned for life. Thompson and Kravis were revealed as cowardly, as liars, as negligent.

Fred Creasy, Hollingers' controller, was taken apart by Greenspan, who destroyed Creasy's contention that Conrad's trip to Bora Bora cost the company $565,000 -- "the most expensive airplane trip in the history of manned flight," said Greenspan. Creasy was badgered into acknowledging he might not be an expert in corporate financing.

Conrad pays tribute to Greenspan's dismantling of Creasy.

But it was Greenspan's cross-examination of Radler that destroyed the prosecution's case. Conrad thought he started off badly: "Ponderous, repetitive, disorganized and excrutiating... we considered what to do with Greenspan."

Yet Conrad later acknowledges that before Greenspan was finished with him, "Radler was smeared over the floor and walls." Relentlessly, Greenspan nailed Radler as a liar and cheat.

On the first day he was cross-examined, Radler was cocky and thought he was in control. On the second day he was in disarray. He had a sweetheart deal with the prosecution on condition that he nail Conrad, but by the time Greenspan was done with him, he was pleading that he couldn't remember things he had said the day before.

In its summation, the prosecution didn't dare cite Radler's testimony, where they once had boasted to the jury that Radler's testimony would destroy Conrad.

Instead, it was Radler and the prosecution that were destroyed.

Conrad also expresses concern that during the trial, the two Eddies (Greenspan and Genson) "frequently slumbered in the afternoons.... Greenspan would awaken occasionally, like a crocodile whose nostrils have been tickled by a ripple on the water, and advise me to sit differently, that my posture was too erect for the jury, and then doze off again."

Lawyers for the defence worried that the jury didn't like Greenspan. This didn't seem to worry Greenspan as it worried others. He was more concerned about the verdict than his popularity.

As it turned out. Conrad was found 'not guilty' on nine of 13 charges -- the nine being issues that Greenspan had argued. I remember having lunch with Greenspan and his legal team the day the case went to the jury. Greenspan asked (as all lawyers do, of reporters) what I thought the verdict would be.

I thought Conrad would win 12 of the 13 charges, the exception being obstruction of justice in the removal of boxes from 10 Toronto Street, simply because video images of carrying boxes looked bad. "My God, that case alone could be 14 years," said Greenspan.

The boxes were the one issue where Greenspan didn't represent Conrad in court -- Eddie Genson did, but had to stop before he'd finished due to frail health. Conrad considered Genson "a Damon Runyon figure, obfuscatory, stammering, almost incomprehensible in his repetition and syntax and jangling accent -- but clever."

Whether or not the jury liked Greenspan was irrelevant -- jurors were persuaded by his demolition of prosecution witnesses that Conrad Black was mostly innocent.

That doesn't come across clearly in Conrad's book, which is too bad because it's a fascinating book about the trial and contains many delightfully descriptive insights and assessments.

Still, Conrad must have been an aggravating client -- forever advising his lawyers, second-guessing them, recommending what to do, and criticizing when the unexpected happened.

As far as I'm concerned, the hero of that landmark trial was Greenspan who, I think, saved his client from the lynch-minded prosecution which did all it could to convict a man against whom there was no evidence that indicated guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Had it not been for Greenspan's withering cross-examinations, it's likely Conrad would have been sentenced to 24 or life, instead of the 78 months imposed by Judge Amy St. Eve, who Conrad seems to have respected as fair, courteous, in control.

The only ones to benefit were lawyers and, of course, Hollinger's regulators who took exorbitant fees ($17,000 a day) to wreck a company that had been profitable for shareholders. And of course Richard Breedon, whose report was used to 'get' Conrad, and who made some $50 million if Conrad's assessment is correct.

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