Conrad Black, the newspaper tycoon whose ownership of The Daily Telegraph won him the keys to the British establishment and a seat in the House of Lords, was handed a six-and-a-half-year jail sentence yesterday while still protesting he is innocent of the fraud and obstruction of justice charges against him. In a display of chutzpah in front of the trial judge, Amy St Eve, the peer expressed "profound regret and sadness for the severe hardship inflicted on shareholders by the evaporation of $1.85bn of shareholder value under my successors", but he refused an opportunity to accept any responsibility for the collapse or to apologise for siphoning $6.1m (3m) from a newspaper empire that was once one of the largest media companies in the world.
No matter how powerful you are, how successful, intelligent or educated you are, or what your title is, "no one is above the law in America", Judge Amy St Eve told him in Chicago yesterday. "I frankly cannot understand somebody of your stature, on top of the media empire you were on top of, would engage in the conduct you engaged in and put everything at risk, including your reputation and your integrity."
Lord Black of Crossharbour's final humiliation came in a cramped courtroom at lunchtime, in front of scores of journalists from a media industry that he once bestrode as one of its most powerful and exotic barons. Entering court earlier in the day, he had been forced to run the gauntlet of a media scrum with his wife, the columnist Barbara Amiel, and his daughter, Alana. Two sons, Jonathan and James, were not in court.
He was given three months more to marshal his defences against a slew of new lawsuits and one more Christmas with a family that he said had been reduced to misery and illness by his ordeal but on 3 March next year he will be required to report for his period of imprisonment, the location of which is still unclear, and settle into a new life working for pennies at menial tasks around the jail, awaiting an appeal he belligerently insists will clear his name.
Black's contemptuous commentary on the legal case against him was raised time and time again by prosecutors who had demanded he be put in jail for more than two decades likely to be a life sentence for a man of 63. He once called the prosecutors "Nazis", but Eric Sussman, US assistant attorney in Chicago, said: "The jury that convicted him in July were not Nazi sympathisers or corporate governance zealots."
In the end though, the comments did not much sway Judge St Eve one of the fastest rising stars of the US legal system, who presided over the four-month trial last spring with an efficiency and fairness that was praised by Black in his brief remarks yesterday. "I did not once utter any disrespectful word about this court, your honour personally or about the jurors," he said. His views on the prosecutors were a separate matter, he said.
In fact, the sentence was towards the light end of the guidelines required by US law, which could have put him behind bars for more than eight years.
The judge appeared to give weight to more than 100 letters of support, including from celebrities such as Sir Elton John and Conservative politicians including Boris Johnson and William Hague. Jeffrey Steinback, Black's lawyer, said that if the peer came to the court and professed his guilt and remorse, his words would ring hollow and only incite a baying media to label him a broken man. Instead, the judge should examine the supporters' letters, which show Black as a man of great optimism, kindness and charity.
Mr Steinback read out a letter to the court from Sir Elton and his partner David Furnish, in which the couple praised Black's contributions to their Aids foundation. "He has always been incredibly supportive of our charitable endeavours," they wrote. Mr Sussman countered that a $7,200 contribution to Sir Elton's foundation had come from The Daily Telegraph's charitable fund and that emails showed that, when it was suggested the money should come from his own pocket, he refused.
There were other spats, too, over exactly how much Black and three co-conspirators had been found guilty of stealing from Hollinger. The judge decided it was $6.1m, and that the proceeds could not be directly traced to the improvements on the Blacks' Palm Beach mansion. That means he will not forfeit the home, as prosecutors had demanded. He does, however, have to pay back $6.1m and pay an additional $125,000 fine.
Black was convicted of skimming money from the proceeds of the sale of newspapers owned by Hollinger.
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