BLACK TO PRISON: IS THIS JUSTICE?

Last week Maclean’s put Conrad Black on its cover and chose him as Canadian newsmaker of 2007. Yesterday in a Chicago court room a judge sentenced Black to six and a half years in prison for fraud and obstruction of justice.

When I was hosting a call-in radio program in Montreal, I worked for Conrad Black who contolled Standard Broadcasting. Invariably in December Black would board his company’s jet in Toronto and fly to Montreal for our Christmas party.

Usually on those occasions I had the opportunity to chat with him — about politics, history, current events. I found him gracious, informed and a man armed with a ferocius vocabulary, as one would expect from the author of three splendid biographies of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

So I was torn yesterday to learn that Black was going to a U.S. federal prison for nearly seven years. He will be almost 70 when he emerges.

Whom does such a lengthy incarceration help? Certainly not his former company which has been run into the ground by his successors. Nor will the sentence defer Black from offending again. His career as a business tycoon is finished. The only upside to his prison term is that Black will be able to carry on his writing as he undoubtedly will. And for that I think a term of four years would have sufficed.

In prison Black will be cut off from his major lifeline, his e-mail. He’ll be separated from those who love him most. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life in litigation, and he may never set foot in Canada again.

A sad fate for the founder of the National Post and my Christmas party companion so many years ago.

Do you think Black’s sentence was about right or do you think it was too harsh?

7 Comments »

  1. 1
    John Says:

    Neil, all of the things you say will happen to Conrad Black may very well happen, but to the average person, it won’t matter. Given the opportunity, the ordinary Joe will jump on the chance to bring down one they perceive to be as priviledged and arrogant as Conrad Black.

    The fact that Black misappropriated/mishandled a few millions is small potatoes in the world in which he operates, but it was the opportunity it presented (he should never have tried to haul those boxes away…the average person knows nothing about high finance, but they know something about hiding stuff…..).

    Conrad Black is paying the price not just for what he did, but for who he is and for the world in which he exists. It’s a world riff with questionable bookeeping; the average person has nothing but disdain for a world where CEO’s can literally win the lottery for simply getting fired. It’s a world they don’t understand and seldom get to enter, let alone have an impact.

    The sentence was at the lower end of the scale recommended by the judge. The average person, I suspect, will consider it fair.

  2. 2

    John:

    There is much that you say about how the ordinary chap views the short cuts that go on in the corporate world. Too bad Black got caught up in that. I still feel sorry for him.

  3. 3
    Barbara Says:

    Do you feel as sorry for his victims even if you didn’t attend parties with them?

  4. 4
    John Says:

    Yes, I agree it’s sad.
    I do doubt, however, that we will see any on-line petitions.

  5. 5
    Tony Kondaks Says:

    Barbara’s comment asking Neil whether he feels as sorry for Black’s victims got me thinking about who those “victims” actually were and what the actual injury they suffered as a result of Black’s crimes against them. Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not as familiar with the case as I should be), but those “victims” were shareholders in Black’s corporation and their injury was loss of profit per share because Black “stole” approximately $7 million that should have stayed with the corporation (i.e. spent the corporation’s money to pay for personal expenses for him and his family) which would have otherwise gone as profit per share to those shareholders.
    But there are usually thousands upon thousands of share holders for corporations the size of the one that Black ran. So, the “injury” perpetrated against the “victims” was stolen property — money — and the actual loss per share was probably measured in pennies. And because Lord Black was, I believe, the largest shareholder he was mainly stealing from himself. Of course, this doesn’t make it right…but my purpose is to put the idea of “injury” and “victim” in perspective.
    It makes me think of other famous people who have in the recent past “stolen” from corporations and what their penalty was when they were caught. I think of Claude Charron, the PQ minister who stole a sports coat from Eaton’s back in the ’80s; Wynona Ryder, the Hollywood actress, who stole over $5,000 in designer clothing from Saks 5th Avenue; and Svend Robinson who stole jewelry worth over $50,000. None of them served any prison time and, in effect, received slaps on the wrist. In Charron’s case, I remember that in the French media and on French talk shows there was incredible support for him and disdain for the “evil” English corporation Eaton’s…indeed, to such a degree that one would have thought that Charron was the victim.
    What Black and these others ALL have in common is that they stole from corporations…big, impersonal companies that spread the injury of the crimes committed against them amongst thousands of shareholders.
    Well, you may counter, there’s a big difference between $7,000,000 and a sports jacket or even $50,000. And, yes, there is; but of the above gang of rascals, only Black was actually IN a position in which he could have “stolen” that much. In other words, they all pretty much stole at the level of their respective standards of living. Indeed, I would also suggest that there is a built in bias in our society to disproportionately mete out more punishment to those, such as Black, who are perceived as the elites and the super-rich than the less powerful.
    Here’s a challenge I’d like to put forth to readers of Neil McKenty Weblog: read the following New Yorker article about Jeffrey Skilling of Enron fame written by Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell: http://tinyurl.com/2akyby . Skilling was sentenced to over 24 years in prison (hard-time prison…no country club-type minimum security prison). Gladwell claims that Skilling is and was innocent. I suggest that because he was part of the inner circle that ran a multi-billion dollar corporation that went bankrupt (and, in fact, unlike the Black/Hollinger affair, resulted in both shareholders and employees alike lost 100s of thousands of dollars and in many cases ruined retirements and lifetime savings) that the bias was to convict him no matter what.
    See how you feel about Skilling’s innocence or guilt after you read the article…and, by extention, whether it influences how you feel about Black’s guilt and sentence.

  6. 6
    John Says:

    Have to go out, but will read article later. Off the top, I agree Tony, there’s definitely a perceived bias. Given the opportunity the average Joe will always stick it to the big guy. They start from the premise that all CEO”s line their own pockets through shady book-keeping if nothing else. Black all but owned up to that when he tried to remove those boxes. Worse mistake he ever made.

  7. 7
    John Says:

    OK.
    I’ve read the article. I appreciate the author’s distinction between a mystery and a puzzle and the difference between looking at the demise of Enron from a tax point of view rather than an accounting point of view,
    BUT
    one needn’t read past the beginning and the comments of the ordinary folks who asked to address the sentencing hearing to know that the greatest legal team money could buy wasn’t going to get Jeffrey Skilling off, any more than it would Conrad Black.

    The guy at the top takes the fall. That’s why the big bucks are there. It’s a tightrope they walk, knowing there’s a huge part of the world out there waiting to knock them off. If they don’t conduct their affairs with that knowledge, they are not only foolhardy, they are fools.

    Listen to the people at that sentencing hearing. Folks are tired of “cheaters.” Whether it’s Barry Bonds or Conrad Black or Jeffrey Skilling or the mayor of Ottawa, folks are tired of people who use questionable means to gain their end. Accounting or otherwise.

    Secondly, there’s the David and Goliath factor. Many people lead their daily lives basically feeling powerless over their lot in life and perceive themselves to be pushed around and taken advantage of by those who have the power (the money). Therefore, any opportunity for the little guy to bring down the big guy is to be applauded and cheered.

    Thirdly, there’s the Robin Hood factor. Because so much of the world’s wealth (power) is controlled by so few, any attempt to reclaim it (hey a million here, a million there…) is once again to be applauded and cheered. It’s only fair.

    There’s no mystery here.
    In my mind, the judges are simply reflecting the temper of the times.


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