The Black affair: Conrad's last stand

A self-styled 'freedom-fighter', facing 17 charges of fraud, Lord Black is determined to testify in his own defence (and his own suit). Stephen Foley watches as the stage is set
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The Independent US

The stage is being set in Chicago for the last, and perhaps judicially fatal, stand of Lord Black of Crossharbour, erstwhile proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, conspicuous consumer and alleged corporate fraudster.

The American prosecutors determined to pin 17 fraud charges on the former Conrad Black are positively salivating at the prospect that the rambunctious peer will take the stand in his own defence when his trial opens in a few weeks' time. Styling himself as a "freedom fighter", Lord Black has repeatedly rubbished the allegations that he looted hundreds of millions of dollars from his media companies, and in recent weeks he has told friends that he is resolved to testify.

But he could be setting himself up for a clash with his expensive lawyers and other advisers, since they may yet beg to differ. Already the Black camp is concerned that the peer's reputation for arrogance and his penchant for lavish clothes and cars could turn a jury against him.

His team is said to have sought the services of "jury consultants" in an attempt to help his case. These experts, charging up to $500 an hour, will be able to coach him in his testimony, advise on how to act in court, even recommend what to wear to appear more like a man of the people. The humility awareness programme could even include clothing him in an off-the-peg suit, rather than the peer's usual bespoke tailoring.

But the fear is that he just won't be able to take the advice.

Edward Greenspan, Lord Black's Canadian attorney, said he expects to put up a rollicking defence, with or without his client in the witness box. "It is true that Lord Black is ready for the fight, waiting for the fight, and it is certainly his inclination to tell his side to the story," he said. "But in my practice, decisions about testifying or not testifying are made at the appropriate time - and that is at the end of the prosecution's case."

Prosecution attorneys are sceptical they will really get the chance to cross-examine, but are already dreaming of the damaging questions they could lob if they do. "So Lord Black, could you explain why your company, Hollinger International, picked up most of the tab for a $54,000 birthday party for your wife at an exclusive New York restaurant?" Or: "What possible business purpose could there be for a C$250,000 holiday in Bora Bora using the company jet, for which you expected Hollinger to pay half?" And: "Have you been trying to hide some of your wealth from the court, filing an incomplete affidavit on your finances while continuing to splash money on clothes, renovations and charitable gifts?"

The trial begins in Chicago on 5 March. In the vast and expanding constellation of lawsuits between the peer and the remnants of his old empire, and against critics he accuses of libel, this is the trial that really counts. This is the core criminal case, his one shot at clearing his name, and a trial he must win if he is to take revenge on his enemies and start perhaps to claw back a little of the wealth and influence that he enjoyed at the beginning of the decade.

The newspaper empire, once third-largest in the world - stretching from the UK Telegraph titles, to the Chicago Sun-Times and The Jerusalem Post - is broken up. Instead, 62-year-old Lord Black is fighting for his reputation, for his access pass to high society in North America and his right to return to the House of Lords, for which he gave up Canadian citizenship in 2001. That, and to stave off a prison term of up to 101 years.

Chicago prosecutors will this week file their final papers in the case, detailing the myriad ways that Lord Black financed a lavish lifestyle by dipping into the coffers of his companies. Such expenditure might be fine if he had owned the companies outright, but he controlled them only through preferential voting shares and Hollinger was not his personal piggy bank. He is accused of effectively robbing the other shareholders and presiding over what accountants described as "a corporate kleptocracy". And, by dressing up millions of dollars of unauthorised payments to himself and his associates, he also is said to have deceived the taxman.

A short pre-trial meeting between the attorneys and the presiding judge on Friday will confirm Lord Black's not guilty plea and launch the countdown to a trial that is expected to last up to three months. It threatens to touch on the reputations and judgment of a dizzying array of public figures, from American political luminaries such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, who served on Hollinger's board, to the likes of Baroness Thatcher, who adorned Black's "advisory committee" which gathered regularly to discuss world affairs.

Conrad Black's journey from Westminster's red benches to a criminal dock in Chicago began with a few insightful questions from one of the other shareholders at his New York-listed media company, Hollinger International. Tweedy, Browne, an investment firm with a reputation for holding clubby boards of directors to account, wondered in 2003 why Lord Black and his associates had personally trousered $42m when Hollinger sold its Canadian papers. That money, it said, should by rights have gone to Hollinger itself.

When Tweedy, Browne's questions led Hollinger to investigate the complex financial deals between the company, Lord Black and his network of holding companies, the findings were shocking. Lord Black and his associates appeared to have looted Hollinger to the tune of $400m, most of it with the tacit approval of the board but - crucially, if the criminal charges are to be proven - some of it by stealth.

Hollinger International ousted Lord Black as chairman, and he also lost control of his Canadian holding company, Hollinger Inc. Meanwhile, the authorities were closing in. On the day in May 2005 when he was subpoenaed to provide evidence, he was caught on closed-circuit television removing a dozen boxes of documents from Hollinger Toronto HQ. Then in September of that year, David Radler, his long-time business associate and number two at Hollinger, admitted a single count of mail fraud. He had agreed a plea bargain, 29 months in prison, in return for testifying against Lord Black. Charges against the peer followed within weeks.

It has become commonplace to blame the press baron's fall on Barbara Amiel, the former Times columnist known for her pungent pro-Israeli views, whom he married in 1992. While both enjoyed brushing shoulders with the rich and powerful, it is insinuated that her craving for status and influence somehow drove Lord Black to overreach himself financially. Some of his closest lieutenants from the Telegraph have helped bulk up this theory lately, in interviews for Vanity Fair magazine. Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph editor, said Ms Amiel drew his proprietor deeper into a glamorous - and costly - world of celebrity and minor royalty. Jeremy Deedes, the former Telegraph chief executive, said Lord Black "was willing to do whatever she wanted, it would appear".

Neither side is expected to call Ms Amiel, given that "spousal privilege" would allow her to keep the couple's private conversations just that, private. But she is likely to be very much in evidence in Chicago - and she is unlikely to take kindly to sartorial advice from her husband's jury consultants. Such consultants - often psychologists - offer hints on how appearances can garner sympathy with a jury and coach defence attorneys and defendants to better portray their case.

Tom Diamante of DOAR Litigation Consulting, which is not involved in the case, said: "In the end, we are a performance consultancy. Whether you are an executive in a boardroom, a clown in a circus or a litigator at trial, performance matters."

Consultants can also weed out potentially unsympathetic jurors. Some criteria might be obvious - Lord Black's lawyers would probably want to strike out any juror who has been a victim of fraud - but others can be more devious. In one recent complex fraud case, consultants asked potential jurors for their favourite famous person. Those who picked politicians or historical figures were struck out in favour of those who picked pop stars, since they were deemed less sophisticated or intelligent, and less likely to follow the evidence.

Lord Black is likely to be well advised to tone down his notoriously imperious style. This is a man whose response to the criminal charges was to dismiss them as "one massive smear job from A to Z", and who has referred to his enemies as "pygmies". He was described by observers of his first appearance in court as wearing a smirk.

Even the peer's friends admit "he did not get a high mark" when last he appeared in the witness box on his own behalf. His attempt to sell control of the Telegraph titles to the Barclay brothers in 2004, as prosecutors were closing in, was blocked by a Delaware court. Judge Leo Strine said he found Lord Black an "evasive and unreliable" witness and that his explanations of his motives "did not have the ring of truth". The consultants' verdict: must do better.

THE MAIN PLAYERS

Barbara Amiel

Wife, and famously conspicuous consumer. Black's old 'Telegraph' colleagues credit her as a Lady Macbeth with shopping bags. 'Vanity Fair' quotes Jeremy Deedes: 'Barbara is a five-star girl and she needs five-star maintenance'

Baroness Thatcher

A long-standing and loyal friend, the former prime minister put out a statement saying she 'does not cut and run just because someone gets into difficulties. Conrad is innocent until proven guilty'

Charles Moore

Despite Black referring to him as a 'pub bore' for his talk about Ulster and the countryside, Moore has remained faithful to the man who appointed him 'Telegraph' editor - but does confess to finding Amiel difficult to charm

Donald Trump

The Blacks did appear once during their purdah, at the wedding of Donald Trump and Melania Knauss last year. Trump also bought Hollinger's stake in a Chicago apartment block when its finances began to strain

Prince & Princess Michael of Kent

The couple ostentatiously had drinks with the Blacks at Annabel's as the lawsuits were being drawn up. As one newspaper columnist noted, Princess Michael could certainly give them a few tips on social ostracism

Andrew Roberts

The socialite historian has been more reserved lately, but did stand up for Black a year ago. 'Many of the charges are completely ridiculous. They include racketeering - a charge that was intended to catch Al Capone'

Henry Kissinger

Widely thought an ornament on the Hollinger board, the secretary of state under Nixon has left that post and may be called to testify against Black, who once said: 'Dr Kissinger's advice was highly helpful to us'

Tom Bower

Bower's blistering biography of Black last year prompted the peer to rage: 'Friends recorded hours of his drink-laden promises to write a defamatory book. One called him a "laughing hyena".' He's certainly laughing now

Jean Chrétien

Former Canadian prime ministerwho was not best pleased by Conrad Black's bid to join the British House of Lords under his watch. Black ditched his Canadian citizenship in order to take the ermine

Elton John

Perhaps the only man who can do Versailles fancy dress better than Lord and Lady Black. Relations are said to have cooled; Black did not attend the civil partnership ceremony for Elton and David Furnish

Rupert Murdoch

There's no love lost between Black and his nemesis, Murdoch, who massacred previously healthy 'Telegraph' profits by engaging in a 10-year price war with discount copies of 'The Times'

Alfred Taubman

When the disgraced ex-chairman of Sotheby's was a pariah, the Blacks made a public show of friendship. But when the Blacks asked for financial help, Taubman was, according to Tom Bower, the first to turn them down

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