Conrad Black pleads for clemency

Black's plea for mercy seems to be based largely on his great self-admiration.

They came not to bury Conrad Black, but to praise him. In an official response to the parole officer’s report that will serve as a basis for his upcoming sentencing, Chicago attorney Carolyn Gurland adopted a reverent tone worthy of a eulogy for a saint. In a section entitled “History and characteristics of Conrad Black,” she portrays her employer as quite possibly the most munificent and compassionate individual Canada has yet produced. He is, we’re told, a dutiful family man. He’s deeply spiritual. (Black receives ecclesiastical praise even from the Canadian branch of Opus Dei.) He was upset by the death of close family members and the dissolution of his first marriage. Though not stated explicitly, one might extrapolate that he loves kittens.

Lawyers for each of his co-defendants (which include accountant John Boultbee and corporate lawyers Peter Atkinson and Mark Kipnis) also published similar documents, which essentially present mitigating factors arguing in favor of lenient sentences. (All four men face the court’s wrath on Dec. 10th). But there is a particularly broad gulf between Black’s bountiful self-praise and the image much of the public has of him. The former press baron’s plea for clemency seems to be based largely on his great admiration for himself, augmented by supportive unpublished letters from an array of luminaries, including noted businessman Gerry Schwartz, musician John McDermott and George Radwanski, former editor of the Toronto Star. (Yes, that George Radwanski — whose controversial expense claims during his later tenure as federal privacy commissioner led to his resignation and criminal charges.)

It’s worth considering some of the evidence that would seem to contradict the basis for Black’s tremendous self-esteem. I write this not to bury Conrad Black, but rather to point out other elements of his “history and characteristics” that might impede the canonization Gurland apparently seeks for her client.

Some of the more personal observations about Black are hard to dispute. Who better than his daughter to comment on his fine parenting? And Barbara Amiel is doubtlessly better qualified to praise his fine qualities as a husband than someone who hasn’t been locked with him in holy matrimony since 1992. Now, I’m no sentencing expert, but I don’t recall government prosecutors ever casting aspersions on his filial piety — they accused him of stealing money. As I read about how Black comforted his sister-in-law after his brother’s death, I can’t help hearing the echo of something I heard often enough in Courtroom 1241 in Chicago this year: “Objection! Relevance?”

In an impressive display of revisionist gymnastics, Gurland downplays Black’s attitude toward wealth and power. She says the media “wasted no time weaving the information about Mr. Black’s possessions into an elaborate and page turning fiction of a money hungry elitist whose highest ambition was social advancement in the upper echelons of New York and London society.”

It’s tough to deny that journalists seem to relish recounting how Black owned three mansions in three countries plus a luxury Manhattan apartment, employed a veritable army of servants, and spent good money on elephant relief carvings and towel warmers. Black never saw anything wrong with the rich getting richer, and saw merit in greed — he explicitly said so.*1 It’s also hard to deny that Black was an ambitious social climber: After all, he himself attributed much of his international success to having won contacts through organizations such as Bilderberg, an annual invitation-only gathering of elites.*2 And he abandoned his Canadian citizenship so that he could accept a seat in Britain’s House of Lords. One could argue that bringing all this up is somewhat voyeuristic, but none of it is fiction.

Amiel claims that her husband “always sees the best in events and people.” His daughter says “he sees the good in everything and everyone.” It is true that when writing about others, Black often noted their positive attributes and demonstrated an ability to see people for the nuanced creatures they usually are. But whether his observations were astute or otherwise, he was also quick to note the worst in people — and often highlighted their perceived shortcomings in the cruelest of terms.

Examples are myriad and legendary. He called one political candidate an “illiterate bootlicker.” Addressing a critical review of his first book, Black opined that he had been judged by a person who was beneath him — a “slanted, supercilious little twit,” as Black put it. In a rare moment of apparent historical confusion, he called his Jewish prosecutors “Nazis” during the trial.

More recently, he offered the following unflattering observations about veteran journalist Peter C. Newman: “Now 78, shambling about in his ridiculous sailor's cap, bilious and at least verbally incontinent, Newman is pitiful, but not at all sympathetic.” (As usual, there’s a back-story here. Of late Newman has been an implacable critic of Black’s, not to mention highly unflattering toward Amiel.) We know about these slights because Black made them publicly — and impressed as he was by his own verbiage, he often took glee repeating them. If that’s seeing the best in people, I’d hate to be in Black’s company when his unshakable charity to his fellow human beings has been suspended.

Incidentally, while Black’s penchant for colourful criticism is oft exercised, it’s exceedingly difficult to find examples of situations where he has turned that talent on himself. So certain is he of his boundless virtue, that the surest way to provoke such bile is to question it.

Gurland claims Black “unfailingly displayed respect for the Court and the trial proceedings.” The basis for this claim appears to be that he listened attentively and took notes. Having been present for the entire trial, I’m happy to report that at no point did he interrupt the prosecutors, throw paper airplanes, belch, shout “Et tu, Brute!” as David Radler walked into the courtroom, or otherwise make a nuisance of himself. But he has always behaved as though the charges against him were unworthy of further discussion, let alone a court hearing. During the trial, he called the prosecution’s case “a toilet seat around their necks” — prompting Judge Amy St. Eve to ask his lawyers to muzzle him. On the day his sentencing memorandum was published, Black was quoted in newspapers yet again decrying the proceedings against him as “nonsense” and an “outrage.” Maybe I’m stretching here, but isn’t calling the jury’s verdict outrageous disrespectful to the process?

Black’s servants and employees recall his unfailing politeness and concern for their well-being. Joan Friel, who worked a dozen years as a receptionist in Toronto, took issue with media portrayals of Black’s alleged arrogance, claiming he “cared about all his staff members from the top rung to the bottom rung.” His limo driver, John Hillier, recounted how when he suffered depression as a result of a divorce, Black welcomed him and his children to live at his home. And “Conrad negotiated fairly with journalists employed by his publications such that his word was recognized as his bond.”

While it’s evident that a fair number of employees fondly recall their days under Black — I’ve spoken to some of them — this was hardly universal. Black loathed organized labour, and struck it at every opportunity with gusto. In 1973 in Sept-Iles, Que., by Black’s own account, the publisher of one of his small newspapers “lost control of events and the journalists announced they were forming a union.” In his autobiography, Black proudly recounts how “I fired the entire editorial department of four people, purportedly for cause (professional incompetence).” Crushing their uprising brought him great satisfaction.

Later, when employees went on strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 (where this writer worked at the time), Black described the discontented workers as “gangrenous limbs” he was keen to amputate. (The eight-month strike ended with union decertification, and many left his employ.) Labour disputes are often highly emotional, but these examples suggest that Black’s love for his employees and desire to encourage them had limits. Gurland was wise to avoid highlighting her client’s anti-labour worldview, which might not play well in a blue-collar city like Chicago.

Black fervently holds to his ideals, Gurland tells us. This is uncontestably true, more so of him than of most individuals you’re likely to encounter. But adhering scrupulously to our beliefs can just as easily bring us to vice as it can to virtue. Sir Thomas Moore, that bastion of adherence to principle, burned people at the stake for holding views he believed to be heresy. Unwavering conviction is not universally admirable.

Gurland praises Black for conducting his business with “an enormous amount of integrity.” Good thing she didn’t bring up the notorious “November Agreement” of 2003. That’s the agreement in which Black pledged to dedicate the lion’s share of his time to supporting an ongoing restructuring process at Hollinger International, and vowed to pay back US$7.2 million in non-compete fees he’d allegedly received improperly. “I will be devoting my attention in coming months to achieving a successful outcome for all Hollinger shareholders,” Black said.

In fact, he had no such intention. He was already aggressively working to undermine the restructuring process by selling another of his holding companies to a pair of eccentric British billionaire twins. And citing a change of heart, he revoked his promise to repay the money weeks later. The vaunted bond of Black’s word proved water-soluble.

Earlier this year, the Chicago jury evidently concluded that the manner in which money belonging to Hollinger International found its way into Black’s pockets was similarly less than praiseworthy. Which brings us to the most important aspect of Gurland’s treatise: It radiates not only Black’s certainty of his own peerless virtue, but also his cherished belief that his opponents are wicked, ignoble and base — and that the jury convicted him in a frenzy of irrationality.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Gurland’s eulogy is the explanation it offers regarding Black’s intransigence. It is no secret that Black contests the validity of his prosecution and conviction in unequivocal terms. Gurland attempts to explain away his conduct as a product of helplessness. “When one grasps the utter powerlessness that Mr. Black feels and has felt based on the grief of his children and his wife, it is no wonder that he has issued belligerent rejoinders to his detractors in the press,” the memorandum states. “Mr. Black is a man to stand his ground and to fight. It stands to reason that this impulse would be powerfully unfurled when those he holds most dear are so deeply affected.”

Having reviewed Black’s career in some detail, I’m hard pressed to identify a single incident where he has accepted responsibility when his actions went awry. Rather, his tendency has been to blame others or accuse his critics of baseless envy, spite and stupidity — and he has never before held forth his family to excuse his abrasiveness. To do so now seems laughable.

The sentencing memorandum offered one last chance to express remorse to his victims — and in keeping with his long-standing policy against admitting any errors or regrets, Black rejected it. “I'm not going to turn this into a confessional, but I clearly misjudged the strength of the corporate governance movement,” Black recently conceded during a virtual book signing. “I didn’t misjudge their virtue or lack of it.” (He intends to appeal his conviction). Perhaps this remarkable assurance that he has done nothing wrong helps him manage through what can only be described as a difficult period. But this isn’t the appropriate time to commission a monument to his own expansive ego; that merely stokes the loathing he has engendered for much of his career. He’d better hope Judge St. Eve is immune.

* 1 A Life in Progress, p. 175.

*2 A Life in Progress, p. 280.