I have never been prejudiced against the Blacks, so I follow their case closely and reserve judgment. It’s not every day that a TAS contributor goes on trial, so arguably I have a collegial duty to devour every tidbit of collateral gossip. Well, duty or not, it’s fun for sure. If one of the major networks had the brains to preempt regular programming to show the proceedings, they would sweep the sweeps. The cast of characters here makes Ocean’s Eleven look like the 4-H Club.
First there is – here I rise to point a quivering forefinger – the defendant, Conrad Black. Or Lord Black, of the House of Lords; Baron Black of Crossharbour is the technical title. His sesquipedalian prepotency is a synecdoche among scriveners; he knows a lot of big words. In fact, his friends knew in 1992 he was besotted with Barbara Amiel when he told them she was “quite pulchritudinous”. His media empire included the Telegraph of London, the Jerusalem Post and most of Canada’s newspapers.
He is being prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, fresh from jailing Scooter Libby. The accusation is he defrauded stockholders by writing personal bonuses into deeds of sale and disguising them as non-compete payments.
Need help? Okay. Say I create the Miami Scroll to compete with the Herald and quickly gain a million readers. Murdoch offers fifty million to buy it from my company. My fifty-one percent share of the stock would be worth 25.5 million. So we rewrite the deal for 40M and add a 10M personal payment for my promise not to start another paper. My take now: 30.4 million.
Barbara Amiel is the loyal second wife, since he became her fourth husband in ’92. She was the Ann Coulter of Canada, the right-wing bomb-throwing columnist who thrived on being out of step with the liberal media. She played a very important role for high society men, that of the beautiful-woman-smart-enough-to-be-squired-around-by-a-billionaire-without-looking-like-a-dope-who-fell-for-a-Las-Vegas-showgirl. Black was the final feather in her cap and to her credit she is sticking.
The word on the street is that her spending habits put the financial pressure on Black to accelerate his earning. Angry at a delay in a British Airways flight, she prodded her husband to buy a Gulfstream that could cross the Atlantic. There was only one bathroom on the plane for passengers and crew, so a new one was installed to the tune of a quarter-mil. As for her attitude to staff, the following anecdote gives a clue. When each new third butler was given a tour of the house by senior butler Andrew Lightwood, he would take them to the roof and remind them to keep the “landing lights” on at all times: “Madame takes off from here on her broomstick looking for cats.” She grew up poor, you see.
Still, we love her for her prose. In defending soccer players accused of pushing a girl around, she wrote: “Female groupies in see-through tops and micro-minis, trawling spots where footballers hang out, are tinsel-wrapped bait. One can hardly blame footballers for their inability to resist what middle-aged Presidents of the United States cannot.”
The defense attorney, by a special dispensation, is the Canadian superstar “Fast Eddie” Greenspan. To get the court to accept the foreign attorney, Black had to sign a waiver ceding his right to appeal based on inadequate representation. Fast Eddie started slow in the early going, but came on strong last week, humiliating economist-socialite Marie-Josee Kravitz and former Illinois Governor “Big Jim” Thompson on the witness stand. The two of them, members of the auditor board of Black’s company, were testifying for the prosecution to the effect they were gulled by his shenanigans.
Greenspan identified eleven separate reports that each of them had signed which openly included the non-compete payments. Their only response was they had failed to notice them. Greenspan ran them through the wringer, document by document, making them testify again and again they had missed the key entries. Thompson tried to use some bravado by saying he had “skimmed” rather than read. Fast Eddie lighted on that word and asked him one by one whether he had skimmed it; a man has very little credibility with a jury after saying eleven times he had skimmed over multi-million dollar transactions.
Perhaps the best line came when Greenspan asked Thompson if his role as head of the auditing committee gave him extra responsibility. “No, it was a very democratic committee,” said Jim.
“Even in a democracy someone has to be the governor,” was Fast Eddie’s fast rejoinder.
This week, Black’s partner and supposed co-conspirator David Radler, not so affectionately nicknamed “the Rat” by their journalist employees, has taken the stand. He cut a deal with the government to talk in return for getting only 29 months in a Canadian jail and paying back umpteen millions. He began Monday with the early history of their partnership in the 1970s and continued Tuesday and Wednesday painting himself as a dupe, guilty only of not asking enough questions about all the millions he was getting. Cross-examination began yesterday with Greenspan establishing Radler had lied to at least 24 different investigators. Stay tuned.