Waves of Contempt

What could have been a brilliant legal critique descends into score settling

Twenty years ago I was a corporate lawyer on Bay Street. One of my firm’s clients was Campeau Corporation, a real estate company founded and led by the gifted and excitable Robert Campeau. Bob Campeau was a man of outsized personality and fierce temper. Campeau Corporation had borrowed a lot of money to buy two large U.S. department store chains. As a result, it was in serious financial trouble. At a tense board meeting, Bob was asked to leave the room while his future as chief executive officer was discussed. He went grudgingly to his lavish office next door.

It was quickly decided that Bob had to go. But who would tell him? All eyes turned to Conrad Black, the most imposing and formidable member of the board. He agreed to bell the cat, and proceeded in his stately fashion to Bob Campeau’s office to deliver the unpleasant message.

The rest of us sat in silence for the next 20 minutes listening to muffled shouting coming through the wall separating the boardroom from Bob’s office. The shouting was punctuated by loud thumps and crashes; it sounded as if furniture were being flung about.

Finally, Conrad Black appeared in the boardroom doorway. He was red in the face. He was breathing heavily. His tie was askew. Devoid of his trademark sang-froid, he spoke. “He won’t go,” he said.

And neither will Conrad Black. His outsized career and personality are still the subject of dinner party arguments and newspaper columns (many written by himself). He is still shouting and tossing the furniture around. The most recent example of this commotion is his extraordinary memoir, A Matter of Principle. In it, he describes “the supreme crisis of my life,” his fall from professional, financial and social grace, his startling journey from a mansion in Palm Beach to the Coleman Federal Correction Complex three hours away down a Florida highway.

I had some sympathy for Black when I began to read this book. He is fascinating, formidable and talented. The legal case against him was thin. The price he paid for his wrongdoing—professional ruin, public vilification and prison—seems out of all proportion to what he did. His resilience and tenacity are admirable; almost anyone’s spirit would have been obliterated by what he has endured, but that has not happened to him. In Black’s own words: “Nothing is quite as educational, for the mind, the spirit, and the intuition, as being ground to powder, provided the chastitee survives it with redoubled determination (as I have).” And the love and commitment between him and his wife, despite the adversity they have faced, are impressive.

But my sympathy largely evaporated as I read A Matter of Principle. For the most part, the book is a pastiche of attacks on those who Black thinks betrayed or persecuted him because they were venal, cowardly, depraved, incompetent or stupid (or all of those things). In recent years, by his account, Black has encountered a “seemingly endless list of morally deformed people.” Black’s onslaught on his foes is savage and extravagant, counterproductive and comical.

The facts of Black’s spectacular downfall are legend. For many years he controlled a newspaper empire through two public companies, Hollinger Inc. and its American subsidiary, Hollinger International. Starting in 2002, some shareholders of Hollinger International began complaining about the company’s corporate governance and the extravagant compensation given to Black and other senior executives. They objected particularly to large payments made to Black by companies buying newspapers from Hollinger, remuneration given in exchange for his personal promise not to compete with them in the future. These payments, it was said, were not authorized by the Hollinger board and were an improper cash grab. Black, in typical fashion, gave not an inch when confronted with these accusations. He writes, “I have never seen a corporate governance militant who was not by nature either a tedious and distracting fidget, like an annoying insect, to no good purpose, or a charlatan, attempting pretextual agitation for disguised and usually self-aggrandizing purposes.”

But the clamour grew, and a special committee of Hollinger International’s board was struck to investigate. The committee’s report, delivered in August 2004, was entitled “A Corporate Kleptocracy,” and said that Hollinger was “an entity in which ethical corruption was a defining characteristic.” By then Black had been forced to resign as an officer of the company, which by now was on the point of collapse. A variety of criminal charges were laid against him and other Hollinger executives, and in July 2007 he was convicted by a Chicago jury of illegally diverting company funds and of obstruction of justice and was sent to prison for 78 months. The sentence was later reduced to 42 months after the U.S. Supreme Court found the honest services statute, the basis for some of Black’s convictions, to be flawed.

The two main villains in Black’s world are Richard Breeden and David Radler. Breeden, a former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, was principal author of the special committee report that led to criminal charges. Black is unsparing in his attack on Breeden. “Round, flabby face; dull, lifeless eyes … He reminded me of nothing so much as a regional commissar of [Russian secret police chief] Beria’s, with the bloodless, piscine coldness of someone whose power vastly exceeded his intelligence.” Radler was Black’s longtime business partner who made a plea bargain with American prosecutors in exchange for giving evidence against him. “It was naturally a very strange experience listening to his false incrimination of me but also seeing his squinty, evasive eyes … David Radler was too distasteful to be pitiful, too diminished to remind anyone of his days of consequence, too banal to arouse any interest at all … misshapen by envy and insecurity that drove him to treachery and cowardice.” These quotations are only samples of the vitriol poured over the heads of Breeden and Radler in A Matter of Principle.

Black’s vituperation is not reserved for Breeden and Radler. A wave of his contempt washes over just about everyone who figures in the story of his downfall. Gordon Paris, a director of Hollinger Inc. and member of the special committee, “has a perfectly nondescript and entirely forgettable personality, except for a penchant for self-righteous inflexibility, when he assumes a whiny, grating persistence, like a malfunctioning appliance.” Paul Healy, Hollinger’s vice-president for investor relations, has a “little porcine face … so puffy it made his spectacles seem smaller, like those of a Stalin apparatchik … a maladjusted, scheming courtier, alternately fawning and snarling at the hand that fed him for so long.” Harvey Strosberg, counsel to the Hollinger independent directors, “careened quixotically about, blustering and bullying and then, as is his custom, falling silent when his plan collapsed around his ears and moving on to some new scheme like a pollinating bee.” The deterioration of Eddie Greenspan, Black’s principal defence attorney, “is objectively sad, and is made more so by the inelegance of his acts of denial and displacement of responsibility for his own shortcomings and aggressive paranoia” (he was particularly upset by an interview Greenspan gave The Globe and Mail in October 2009). Press photographers are “terribly overweight, faceless louts … There is something primitive and barely animate about them, and in swarms they are like a great mass of Jurassic rodents, grunting and heaving.” Of the Chicago jury that convicted him, he writes, “I had been conditioned to expect some leftish and podgy housewives, reactionary postal or local government workers, and some utter cretins. These groups were out in numerical strength.” Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, who lead the appeal panel that ruled against Black, has a “sociopathic personality” and is “a dreary, unreasoning pustule of animus.” Again, these are only a few examples of Conrad Black’s acid pen at work.

It is a pity Black did not pay less attention to a febrile settling of old scores and more to his critique of the American criminal justice system, for he has interesting and important points to make about what he calls a “prosecutocracy.” The theme is announced at the beginning of the book: “I have been fighting for my financial life, physical freedom, and what remains of my reputation against the most powerful organization in the world, the U.S. government.” Any lawyer, in any country, knows that the worst opponent in the world is the government, for government has a bottomless pocket and its representatives are often driven by relentless personal ambition and a compelling quasi-political agenda.

Needless to say, Black does not think that the U.S. government fights fairly. He particularly objects to the plea bargain process, which was used to turn David Radler against him. Plea bargaining, he thinks, is the nexus of a severely flawed American system and is used to pursue the biggest fish regardless of the facts. It brings

irresistible pressures to bear on people unable to sustain themselves psychologically or defend themselves financially … It is an evil and profoundly corrupt process … Every informed person in the country knows that the criminal justice system is based on officially sanctioned fraud and intimidation, that the courthouses are silent and the courts empty because almost no one can go the distance with the government, and that there are tens of thousands of innocent people in U.S. prisons because of the false confessions and accusations that are extorted.

Black argues that the American state uses its vast criminal justice powers in unscrupulous and cold-blooded ways. It may seize assets using “laws of questionable constitutionality, designed to combat terrorists or organized crime.” It may deluge the accused with subpoenas, civil charges from regulators and “relentless harassment from the IRS and SEC.” Prosecutors will give inflammatory press conferences and make defamatory leaks; the press conference at which the American prosecutors announced Black’s indictment illustrated a “mindless urge to lynch, to mock justice and due process, recklessly to deploy the power and credibility of the government to a flawed arraignment, and to destroy the innocent.” It is the American state as gangster, writes Black. “It was now my strange misfortune to encounter, at point-blank range, the ugliest and nastiest American face of all, that of its legal system.”

Nor, in Black’s view, will the legal profession protect the accused from this ugly and nasty face (as some dreamers believe they are supposed to). Black argues that lawyers in private practice, state prosecutors and judges often conspire together behind the so-called rule of law to despise, milk and oppress those accused of a criminal offence. Their principal loyalty is to each other (judges, for example, are “toadies” of the Justice Department). Defence lawyers are mostly interested in money and will bill relentlessly until their client’s money is gone, even billing for the time it takes them to bill.

What a tasty target Conrad Black was for the U.S. government! In an open democracy, paradoxically, a celebrity accused is bound to have a harder time of it than the person on the street. Tenacious prosecutors, followed closely by the press, will try to demonstrate that no one, however rich and powerful, is above the law. Black understands his particular vulnerability. He writes, “we seem to have reached the point in the United States, Britain, and Canada where if a man enjoys himself, knows some famous people, expresses opinions in public, and has a glamorous and autonomously successful wife, he mounts the guillotine of public and media opprobrium.”

I am sure it is not easy to edit a book by Conrad Black, but his publisher should have tried harder. The book is much longer than it needs to be. There is a lot of repetition (in one case, a passage that appears in the main body of text is repeated almost word for word in the postlude). Timelines and other help in following the complex story are lacking; the reader has to flip back and forth to figure out exactly how events are unfolding and in what order. I understand the reason for the epilogue, bringing things up to date, but the postlude (“Reflections on the American Justice System”) could have been easily and effectively incorporated in the main text. As for the appendices, with the possible exception of Black’s June 2011 statement to the court, they should have been chucked out. Why reprint sundry newspaper columns that are easily available elsewhere?

The pity of it is that an interesting and important book is buried somewhere in this bombastic and narcissistic mess. Black has survived great adversity in an astonishing way; a reasoned and thoughtful account of how that was possible would be well worth reading, perhaps even inspirational. He has experienced first hand the full fury of the flawed American legal system; a balanced and considered analysis of what that was like would have far greater value than the dry-as-dust academic tomes on the criminal justice system that clog law library shelves. But what might have been has been swallowed up by a mean-spirited rant lacking credibility.

Black’s career, and this book, show that this exceptionally talented man is his own worst enemy. At the end of A Matter of Principle, he writes, “when I am at liberty in a few months, I propose not to speak or write of this protracted unpleasantness again.” Certainly, I hope, not in the same vein.

Conrad Black Responds

This letter was originally published in the March 2012 Issue

I could not really accept the LRC’s invitation to reply to its review of my book A Matter of Principle without, in effect, pleading that my book was not “a bombastic and narcissistic mess.” I can only write that no other reviewer, and there have been many in several countries, as it chugs into its third hardcover printing, remotely suggested any of that. But if any reader writes me at cbletters@gmail.com that his or her decision to buy or read this book has been negatively influenced by this review, I will ask the publishers to send more representative reviews, including, if it has reviewed it, from any publication the reader specifies.

I can’t help wondering, briefly, where Canlit finds crabby, obscure reviewers like this; perhaps there is a home for hobbit ogres with literary pretensions somewhere in Canada. Or maybe this is a Mr. Hyde to an otherwise house-trained Dr. Jekyll who can be induced to come snorting out of the undergrowth snapping and gibbering on special occasions.

Whoever this reviewer is has serious cognitive problems and apparently suffers from a merciless personality disorder as well. I have, he writes, forfeited his sympathy (which is the last thing I ever sought), but assure him that he has mine.

Conrad Black
Miami, Florida