Of all the ugly aspects of the American prosecutorial system, one of the ugliest is its sheer randomness. For the massive fraud that wrecked the U.S. mortgage industry and plunged the world economy into a near-depression, there has been hardly any legal reckoning.
Yet there is one financier the U.S. government remains determined to hold in prison to the end: Canadian media magnate Conrad Black.
Back in 2004, Black was formally accused of running a "corporate kleptocracy" in his Hollinger companies, which owned hundreds of newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post, Britain's Daily Telegraph, and Canada's National Post. Black was accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from shareholders. During the very weeks when the subprime bubble was frothing to its peak in 2007 — when mortgage brokers were forging signatures and rating agencies were sprinkling triple-A ratings on worthless securities — it was upon Conrad Black (and Conrad Black alone) that the weight of American justice fell.
Black’s business was smashed and his life turned upside down. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison, and buried in tens of millions of dollars in fines and restitution payments. All that came even as his business partners — including the man with day-to-day management of the business — were given light sentences.
Since the first fierce accusation against Black, the legal case has progressively unraveled. Of the 13 counts of fraud originally brought against him, a jury rejected nine, and higher courts all the way up to the Supreme Court have vacated three. Only one count remains, and that involves the improper receipt of $285,000 — a pitiful remnant of the corporate kleptocracy accusation.
You might think that somebody along the way would decide that Black had been punished to a degree that would have satisfied even the most extreme hanging judge.
You’d be wrong.
Earlier this month, a federal court in Chicago resentenced Black, reducing his sentence from 78 months to 42. Black has served 29 months. He was freed on bail after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor earlier this year. He will now return to serve the rest of his sentence.
You can read more about the legal details of the proceedings in The Wall Street Journal here.
I want to speak today not about the case, but about the man.
One of the things that must most baffle prosecutors in the case is that Black has gathered to his cause so many ardent defenders in the media and the public in the U.S., his adopted homeland of Britain, and his native Canada.
Genuine financial crooks — Bernie Madoff, for example — are reviled and rejected when their crimes come to light.
In Black’s case, even his fiercest detractors pay tribute to the man's character.
"I have always tried to take success like a gentleman and disappointment like a man," Black has said. I have known Black since I was a teenager and worked for him and his companies in the 1980s and 1990s. I can attest: Black has lived up to his words.
I visited Black in prison two years ago. We spent six hours together. Surrounded by bars and walls, his spirit was as effervescent as ever. We discussed the critical reception of his books. (Among them: An acclaimed rethinking of the life of Franklin Roosevelt, putting the struggle against Hitler at the center of the FDR story.) He told hilarious stories of prison life, including a meeting with a convicted mobster who greeted him as a "fellow industrialist." He told me about his work teaching reading to illiterate convicts — and about the man he had coached through to the completion of a high-school equivalency diploma.
When I returned from the visit, my wife asked how it had gone. I said, "I’d have been utterly depressed if Conrad had not worked so hard to cheer me up."
Now with the prison door closing upon him again after the respite of temporary release, for offenses that have all but dissolved in contact with review and appeal, the man’s magnificent spirit will be tested again. He’ll prove equal to what’s ahead. We who admire and cherish him will again turn to him to console us.
And we are left with a bitter thought: That sword carried by the statue of Justice? It should be replaced with a roulette wheel, the better to convey its capricious and cruel outcomes.