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Chicago Attorney Says Conrad Black Has Uphill Climb

Montreal Gazette, March 10, 2007 (Don Butler)

For Conrad Black, it comes down to this: his fate – in a very real sense, what’s left of his extraordinary, outsized life — will soon rest with 12 Chicagoans about as familiar with his own accustomed orbit of excess and privilege as Pluto is with photosynthesis.

When Lord Black’s epic criminal fraud trial opens Wednesday in Chicago with two days of jury selection, the 62-year-old press baron’s liberty – he faces up to 95 years in prison if convicted of all 14 charges against him – will depend on the judgment of a brace of unexceptional strangers whose mundane lives would normally disqualify them from his acquaintance.

That the case is attracting widespread international attention has added a gratifying frisson of validation for Canadians, more accustomed to being overlooked than noticed beyond their own borders. As many as 300 journalists are expected to descend on the Federal Court building in downtown Chicago for the three-month trial.

“It’s kind of our version of the Enron trial,” says Andrew Stoltmann, a prominent Chicago securities lawyer, who rates it among the top five to seven American corporate fraud cases of this young century.

The prosecution team is directed by Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, one of America’s toughest and most accomplished prosecutors. Fitzpatrick won’t lead evidence – that will be left to his 37-year-old deputy, Eric Sussman, and three other young prosecutors – but will certainly be involved in formulating strategy as the case unfolds.

Last, but hardly least, is Judge Amy St. Eve, a no-nonsense judicial prodigy at just 41. “She runs a very tight ship, and it’s very clear who’s running that ship,” says Stoltmann. “She’s a ball-buster.”

But when all the testimony has been given and all legal argument exhausted, it comes down to those 12 mid-westerners on the jury. If they are anything like typical Federal Court juries in Chicago, says Stoltmann they’ll be predominantly blue-collar, relatively uneducated, and over 50 years of age. People, in short, who previously have only encountered a lord in their prayers.

“Those people probably aren’t going to relate well to someone like a Conrad Black,” Stoltmann says. “That’s a big, big problem. Who can really relate to Conrad Black? Not a lot of people.”

Black’s lawyers know that all too well. Last fall, they tried, unsuccessfully, to have the charges against their client dismissed, in part because they said the indictment’s focus on his wealthy lifestyle would prejudice a jury. “A typical juror does not reside in more than one residence, employ servants or a chauffeur, enjoy lavish furniture, or host expensive parties,” they noted.

According to Stoltmann, the prosecution will do everything it can to empanel a typical Chicago jury, in the belief that such a group will have little empathy for a defendant.

Black’s lawyers, he says, “are probably going to try to get more educated, more sophisticated people who might relate a little bit better to Conrad Black.”

Black faces a steep, uphill climb to clear his name – and not just because about 95 per cent of all Federal Court trials in Chicago end up in convictions. “I think the prosecutors have a very, very good case,” Stoltmann says. “There’s a kind of a wave of evidence that’s going to crash upon Conrad Black at trial that’s going to make it real hard for him to get around.”

Some of the most damaging evidence is expected to come from Radler. A remorseless cost-cutter who once shut down the escalators at Hollinger’s Chicago Sun-Times to save on electricity, Radler was the chief operating officer of the companies he ran with Black.

“The fact that he flipped is really, really bad for Conrad Black,” says Stoltmann. Radler “will be a devastating witness,” former Hollinger executive Paul Healy, himself a likely prosecution witness, told Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth earlier this year. “He has a mind like a steel trap, and he never threw away a scrap of paper.”

Greenspan won’t talk, at least not very much, about his strategy. “To win – that’s the strategy,” he says. But it’s clear he will attempt to pin responsibility for any irregularities that may have occurred on Radler.

The list of possible board members who might be called to testify includes some prominent names, such as Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, Richard Burt, Marie-Josee Kravis and James Thompson, a former governor of Illinois.

Has Black told him he wants to testify? “That’s privileged,” Mr. Greenspan parries. But he agrees that if his client insists on testifying, he is powerless to stop him.

Stoltmann says putting the bombastic Black on the stand would be a colossal gamble. “If he testifies, I just think that’s going to come back and bite him.”

Studies have shown that likability is a key factor in determining whether a jury convicts or acquits an accused, Stoltmann says. “If someone is likeable, juries will find a reason to acquit those people.” And while Black can be charming, even dazzling in the right company, likability has never been his strong suit.

The trial’s outcome, says Buell, is hard to predict. If the prosecution can prove outright lying and deception, “then this is a criminal fraud case in any era.

“If it turns out that all he did was conduct some transactions that in retrospect weren’t best for the company, and someone’s trying to call that a crime, then it does look like something different than what we’ve seen before,” he says. “We just don’t know the difference between those two things in this case until we see the evidence.”

As Stoltmann puts it, “It’s going to be an old-fashioned legal donnybrook. It should be fun.”

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