NEW YORK - Iíve been reading the fascinating, six-volume, memoirs of Franceís hereditary executioners, the Sansons, published in Paris in 1862. The Sansons beheaded Franceís most famous condemned personalities, including Louis XVI, Danton, and Robiespierre.
Public torture, known as `suplices,í and executions by sword, ax, and later the more humane guillotine, were a favored entertainment for the Paris mob.
These macabre memoirs make a perfect reading companion to the current legal and media torment of Conrad and Barbara Black.
Since foreign affairs and politics are more normal beat, I hadnít planned to write about Blackís Chicago trial. But US prosecutorsí lurid accusations, the deluge of spiteful slander poured on the Blacks by the envious Madame Defarges of the media, and the whole ghastly spectacle impelled me to speak up.
I was aghast to hear US federal prosecutors brand Conrad Black, whom I have always known as a brilliant businessman, gentleman, and historian, branded a thief, fraudster, and robber, and actually charged with `racketeering,í something I had believed was reserved for the Mafia and Colombian drug barons.
Iíve known Conrad and Barbara for decades. I never had business dealings with Lord Black nor wrote for his papers. But we share a deep, passionate interest in military history in general and warships in particular. We have enjoyed many an evening discussing such arcane topics as armor belts on WWII Italian battleships, the Second Punic War, and concrete thickness on the Maginot Line forts.
Like many other notable men, Blackís memory is prodigious and comprehensive. We also heartily but amiably disagree over the Mideast and aspects of US foreign policy. Our politics were very different. Barbara Black, who signed me on when she was editor of the Toronto Sun, has thundered for decades that I should be banned from writing about the Mideast. In fact, we have argued about the Mideast since the day we met.
While I met most of the defendants in the current Chicago trial, I am certainly not competent to comment on the intricacies of who told what to whom on the Hollinger board. Accusations that Black misled his board form the core of government accusations of fraud.
However, I find it hard to believe prosecutorís allegations that Black and his associates blatantly stole $60 million from his company and somehow gulled a board made up of very smart people. To me, extraction of these funds from Hollinger was more likely a tax avoidance scheme (in Canada, non-compete agreements were tax-free at the time) than fraud. If Black had wanted to loot his own company, there were far more subtle ways to do so, such as slowly moving funds into offshore investments and foreign newspapers he owned.
Nor did Barbara Blackís shopping habits, however vivacious, drive Conrad to loot his company, as covens of media witches now claim. He had ample personal funds and delighted in Barbaraís glamorous appearance. It is also particularly distressing to see many of London, New York, and Palm Beachís great and good, who paid court to the Blacks and eagerly drank their champagne now avoiding them and speaking ill of the beleaguered couple. The British leftwing press has been disgustingly vicious and just as bloodthirsty as the Paris mob.
Other charges leveled at Black range from trivial items to murky issues of corporate governance. They recall 1930ís Soviet show trials where all sorts of irrelevant minor infractions were used to discredit the innocent. Barbara Blackís $2,600 handbag may seem hair-raising to Midwestern mall shoppers, but I wonder when these prosecutorial Illinois Savonarolas last priced $12,000 handbags at Hermes in New York. These petty charges suggest a weak case. Though how the Chicago jurors, many from humble backgrounds, will react is anyoneís guess.
Ditto Blackís private jets. These days, almost every corporate bigwig and many politicians fly on private jets paid for by shareholders or contractors. Conrad and Barbara were indeed living large, as most chairmen of multi-national companies do. Their high profile, occasional haughtiness, and unabashed enjoyment of wealth made them lightening rods for envy. Blackís lording it up, and using $5 dollar words, is not a crime. He should be commended for promoting good English.
As for flaunting his wealth, as I heard the late Sen. John Connolly reply when accused of being rich, `to my poor friends Iím rich. To my rich friends, Iím poor.í
Blackís use of corporate funds and perks should at worst have been settled in a quiet civil lawsuit. Instead, the government, of which Lord Black was formerly and ardent supporter, chose to turn a business dispute into a lurid criminal show trial and then sought to seize his assets to deprive him of funds to mount a defense.
The Chicago circus is yet another dismaying example of the politicization, rawness, and capriciousness of the flawed US justice system. Black at least can fight back, unlike so many accused who canít resist the awesome power of the US federal government and are forced to plead guilty.
It is doubly dismaying to see government prosecutors, who serve an administration that counterfeited fraudulent `intelligenceí and lied the US into a calamitous Mideast war that has wasted nearly $700 billion and countless lives, spending millions to `defendí Hollinger shareholders. Who speaks for Americaís shareholders?