Conrad's prospects look black after right-hand man admits $32m fraud

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The Independent Online

The fate of Conrad Black, the former owner of The Daily Telegraph who faces several lawsuits for allegedly looting millions of dollars from his publishing empire, looked increasingly gloomy last night when his erstwhile right-hand-man admitted charges that he took part in a $32m (£17.8m) fraud.

Federal prosecutors hope the guilty plea from David Radler, the former chief operating officer of Hollinger International, the newspaper's former parent company, will help them implicate Lord Black.

The media magnate's demise has been a spectacular one. He built up a global newspaper empire which at its peak boasted both The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph titles, The Jerusalem Post and The Chicago Sun-Times. His position enabled him to promote his stridently right-wing, pro-American agenda, as well as cementing his position in high society. The extravagant lifestyle of Lord Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, became legendary. They had homes in Kensington, London, New York, Toronto and Palm Beach, Florida.

But the revelations that Lord Black had allegedly looted millions of dollars and paid himself excessive fees led to him being ousted as the chief executive of Hollinger in November 2003, and forced to step down as chairman in the following January. He is being sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission along with some of his close associates.

Appearing in a court in Chicago, Mr Radler, 63, made a brief statement, saying: "I plead guilty." When asked by the judge whether he was competent to enter a plea to the court, the former executive - who is famous for his meticulous attention to detail - indicated that he was competent. He said he had taken a sleeping pill and consumed one alcoholic drink the previous night.

Last month, Chicago's high-profile government lawyer Patrick Fitzgerald launched fraud charges against Mr Radler, Mark Kipnis, Hollinger's ex-head lawyer, and Ravelston, a privately-owned company which was controlled by Lord Black. Mr Kipnis pleaded not guilty in August. There will be a hearing for Ravelston today.

Hollinger itself has also brought a civil case against the colourful peer. An independent report it commissioned concluded last August that Lord Black was guilty of "corporate kleptocracy". Lord Black denies the allegations and is counter-suing.

In recognition of his help with the ongoing investigation at Hollinger, federal prosecutors are expected to recommend Mr Radler serves only 29 months of the potential 35-year prison sentence he could face from the seven counts of fraud of which he is charged.

The shadow of the lawsuits had already forced the Blacks to pare down their luxurious lifestyle. The palatial home in Kensington has been sold for £13m to a former Mexican beauty queen, as have the private jets. The house in Florida is also on the market. The couple are now staying in a Knightsbridge hotel suite, in London, but they are thought to be looking for an apartment to rent.