Free at last: Black always believed he'd be vindicated

Odds are the former media baron will never spend another day in jail

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Friends who occasionally visited Conrad Black in prison were struck by his good spirits and optimism that one day he would be vindicated by the same U.S. justice system that convicted him of corporate fraud.

No one would have bet that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear his case challenging the constitutionality of "honest services" under which he was convicted of three counts of fraud and sentenced to six and a half years in prison, with no prospect of early parole.

Just by accepting the case on their calendar, a majority of the nine-member high court indicated they were interested in hearing arguments. Not only did they hear them, they unanimously determined that the U.S. government's interpretation of honest services was too broad, and essentially vacated the judgment. The government will have to decide whether to retry the case.

Meantime, in light of the high-court ruling, the same court of appeals that previously refused Black bail, ordered on Monday that he be granted it.

As soon as his lawyers can get a hearing from the lower-court judge who heard the case, Black will be free. It's a fair assumption he can make the bail money. It's equally a given that he represents no flight risk. If Black were going to skip the country, he would have done so instead of turning himself in at the Florida correctional facility 30 months ago.

He should be home in Palm Beach for the weekend. Odds are that he will never spend another night in prison. The Supreme Court has set a much higher burden of proof on honest services, and it will be very difficult for the government to meet that standard.

There remains the obstruction of justice charge, arising from Black removing personal effects from his Toronto office, a moment caught on a security tape. This occurred not only in another jurisdiction, but in another country.

If the other charges are set aside, then a very strong case can be made that Black should be released on time served for the obstruction charge. There is no social purpose to be served by his remaining in prison, except for the education of his fellow inmates who have enrolled in his history course.

This is how he spent part of his time, as he would put it, as a guest of the United States government. He worked on his appeal. He kept up his weekend column in the National Post, the newspaper he founded in 1998. He has written another book, on the ordeal of his trial and imprisonment. All of Black's books -on Maurice Duplessis, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, are door-stoppers. His next one will be no exception, and if he settles a few scores: What else are memoirs for?

Looking back on Black's Chicago trial in 2007, it is clear that he was very much on trial for his lifestyle. The government couldn't charge him for his wife's refit of the corporate jet, so it charged him with a bunch of governance issues relating to Hollinger Inc., the holding company that was the foundation of his media empire.

It's generally forgotten, in the ruins of Hollinger, that when Black was running it he created a lot of shareholder value. For example, when he sold the Post and the Southam newspapers, including The Gazette, to the Asper family 10 years ago, he got out at the top of the market. Which might be another way of saying the Aspers overpaid, taking on debt that eventually led to the newspaper franchises ending up in the hands of the new proprietors led by Paul Godfrey. It was the disgruntled shareholders, led by Richard Breeden, who turned Hollinger from a blue chip into a penny stock.

What should not be forgotten is what Conrad Black, in founding the Post, did for the news business in this country. Where the Globe and Mail had long defined itself as "Canada's national newspaper," Black and his editor, Ken Whyte, gave them a run for their money. If the paper had a conservative slant, that was the whole point, empowering voices on the right. If the Post proved to be the scourge of Jean Chretien and the Liberals, it served them right for denying Black the right to accept his life peerage while retaining his Canadian citizenship.

One of the reasons the Post lost so much money -and it lost millions for years, is that Black paid top dollar to journalists. The Globe paid even more to hire some of the talent away. On those grounds alone, Black should be voted into the News Hall of Fame.

It's not clear that Black will ever do humility very well, even after the humbling experience of prison. He has lost a lot in this -his empire, his standing in the business community, and much of his personal wealth. But always, he has fought on, bloodied but unbowed.

Perhaps his vindication is at hand, as is his freedom.

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