Black Watch: Today’s Top Stories

Black Watch: Today’s Top Stories

The Globe and Mail scores two knock-downs over its prime competitor in the Black trial derby—the National Post. One appeared on the front page of Saturday’s Globe, where James Adams got a first crack at Black’s new biography of Richard Nixon. While careful not to suggest that Black’s reflections on Nixon amount solely to a self-serving parable, Adams quotes one passage, the meaning of which could hardly be clearer:

“About the only time that Lord Black seems to comment on his own situation occurs near the end, when he recounts how former Nixon loyalists tried to save themselves during Watergate by striking deals with the authorities. Notes Lord Black: ‘The American prosecutorial system encourages a system of suborned or intimidated perjury, or at least spontaneous clarity of recollection, to move upwards in the inculpation of officials in any organization where wrongdoing is alleged. Plea bargains are negotiated by threat and financial strangulation and reduction of penalties, as lower echelons roll over in sequence blaming higher-ups.’

“It is, he says, ‘a questionable system, which led decades later to the installation of the ‘whistleblower’—i.e., the squealer—as one of the central figures in American commerce.’ ”

The second hit involved testimony from former Torys lawyer Beth DeMerchant presented during a half-day session on Friday that suggested that Black outmanoeuvred the Aspers in his sale of the Southam chain and the National Post to CanWest. Paul Waldie reported:

“As negotiations proceeded, Hollinger got its way on several issues, [DeMerchant] said. For example, at one point CanWest wanted to base the transaction on an asset-sale basis for tax considerations. But that didn’t suit Hollinger and, in the end, CanWest backed down. The result was a $400-million saving for Hollinger, the jury heard. CanWest also agreed to pay Lord Black’s private company, Ravelston Corp. Ltd., a $6-million annual fee to run the newspapers. That fee was about twice as much as the Asper family was charging CanWest at the time for the services of the Aspers, according to documents filed in court. The management agreement also included a clause that required CanWest to pay Ravelston $22.5-million if Ravelston cancelled.”

A neat trick that, charging more money to cancel a service than to provide it. If Black walks, I’m certain his case study will be required reading at the Harvard Business School. It should be noted that the Post has yet to report one word of DeMerchant’s testimony on this matter.

Happenings today start with somebody from KPMG explaining the fine points of fraud to the jury (the prospect of which should have them leaping out of bed). Later in the week, one of Conrad’s several Brutuses, former U.S. ambassador Richard Burt (also formerly of the Hollinger International audit committee), arrives at Room 1241 to plunge the knife in yet again.

A particularly nasty entry in Chris Silvester’s media diary in The Independent yesterday asked after the status of a portrait of Lord Black rendered by a prominent British painter:

“Whatever happened to Sue McCartney-Snape’s portrait of Conrad Black, the former press baron on trial for fraud in Chicago? A 10th-anniversary gift from his wife Barbara—his to her was an enormous finger bauble—the four-by-five-foot watercolour portrait shows Conrad hosting one of his famous parties in Kensington, surrounded by some of the historical figures he admires, including Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Disraeli and General Patton, but also by celebrities, friends and business associates. One of those prominently depicted is David Radler, Black’s business partner for many years, who has agreed to give evidence against him at his trial in return for a plea-bargained sentence of a mere 29 months. (If convicted on every count, Black could face up to 100 years in prison.) ‘Where does it hang now?’ I asked the artist the other night at the Hatchards’ party. ‘It was shipped to Palm Beach,’ McCartney-Snape told me, ‘which is not exactly the best place for watercolours—all that sunlight, you know.’ If acquitted, Conrad will be forced to contemplate the image of his arch-enemy every time he glances at the painting. Of course, if he is convicted he may never have to see it again.”

That last line, with its poised snobbery and sheer chutzpah, reminds me yet again why, as a Canadian, I am grateful for the end of Empire.

And, finally, the once distant drums of David Radler’s testimony draw nearer this morning. Bloomberg posted a lengthy feature detailing the five Ws of his coming testimony. Co-written by two of Bloomberg’s senior scribes, Erik Schatzker and Michael Janofsky, the piece quotes one of Black’s oldest ex-friends, former Hollinger board member Fred Eaton. “It’ll be devastating. David is a terribly smart guy and he just won’t get himself into trouble. He has every motivation for sticking to his story.”

This is a neat bookend to a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times pointing out that the prosecution’s case—which might seem obscure at first—is like a puzzle put together over the life of the trial, some of which won’t make sense until the final pieces are in place.

In other words, it ain’t over till it’s over.