He has been likened time and again to Citizen Kane, the outsized character based on the extravagant life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, but if the timing was such that Orson Welles could have instead made a film about Conrad Black, we may never have heard the phrase “rosebud”. Because Black, born in 1944 to George Montegu Black (the man who took EP Taylor’s Canadian Breweries and turned it into the largest brewery in North America) and Jean Elizabeth Riley (of Winnipeg’s prominent Riley clan), has lived a life that renders Hearst’s tame by comparison.
According to his biographer George Toombs, Conrad was different to most of the members of his very large family, in that he was neither athletic nor handsome. “So he developed a different skill – wordplay, which he practiced a lot with his father.”
It was a skill he would’ve needed after being expelled from Upper Canada College, one of the most prestigious in the country, for selling exam papers to fellow students. He would’ve needed it too after being expelled later that same year (1959) from Trinity College, and again when, in 2007, after having presided for a time over the third largest newspaper conglomerate on Earth, he was tried for fraud and other offences by a United States court.
Lord Black of Crossharbour, as he was by then known – in 2001 he renounced his Canadian citizenship and was inducted into the British House of Lords – was charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstructing the ends of justice by United States prosecutors in 2005. Strangely, in 2006, just before submitting his fourth book (a biography of Richard Nixon) to publishers, he tried to get his Canadian citizenship back, announcing, “I have settled into my new life as a freedom fighter.”
No, this was not Douglas Adams turning his hand to non-sci-fi satire, this was a real man’s existence, and it wasn’t even the half of it. In early 2007, as the next in a long list of defamation suits filed by Black, he sued British author Tom Bower for $11 million (Cdn.). The claim? Libelous portrayal of his wife Lady Amiel in the book Conrad & Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge. Black had already written about his views on the book in a British newspaper, stating, “[Bower’s] keyhole, smut-mongering side-piece portrayal of my wife as a man-eating sex maniac prior to her marriage to me is disgusting.”
A month later, in March 2007, Black got some news that he wouldn’t be able to tackle in a civil suit. Turned out that US federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the same man who brought the criminal indictment against him, had just scored a major coup with the conviction of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to US Vice President Dick Cheney. Fitzgerald nailed Libby for lying to a grand jury and FBI agents on a case concerning the leak of the identity of a CIA operative in 2003.
Was Lord Black worried? Not on the surface, but he should’ve been. He was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for defrauding Hollinger International, of which he was chairman and chief executive, of $6.1 million. Together with three fellow executives, he’d apparently been skimming money off the sale of dozens of his own companies.
Now it seems that maybe he didn’t do anything of the sort. On Monday 19 July, against all the odds and after over two years in prison, Black was granted bail by the US Court of Appeals. In June, the US Supreme Court had ruled that there was a violation of Black’s Sixth Amendment right to a just trial, which opened up the route to the appeal.
Journalist Adam Daifallah, writing in Canada’s National Post, counted himself amongst those who had believed in Black’s innocence all along.
“It appears as though the US legal system is realizing, albeit far too late, that the only crimes that have been committed here are those against Conrad, his family and his reputation.
“Conrad always looked upon this ordeal as being a long, drawn out war. He knew the war for his final goal – complete vindication – would take place in many battles in both the courts of justice and public opinion. He never stopped believing he was innocent and he never doubted victory would eventually come. For the first time since the beginning of these travails, he is now winning victories on both fronts. And in a few short hours or days, he will taste freedom again for the first time in more than two years.”
And yet it may be a short-lived freedom. Recently, Black’s life has started to resemble more a six-season HBO drama series than a once-off feature film (which is why Welles may have wanted to stick with Hearst after all). The latest episode concerns a claim initiated this year by the US Internal Revenue Service, which alleges that Black owes $71 million in back taxes on unreported income of $120 million between 1998 and 2003.
Lord Black of Crossharbour disputes the claim. As per his version, he was never a citizen nor a resident of the United States to begin with.
By Kevin Bloom
Photo: Lord Conrad Black is interviewed as he arrives at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago, December 16, 2005. The toppled media tycoon was charged on Thursday with four additional felony counts including racketeering and obstruction of justice related to the alleged looting of Hollinger International Inc., federal prosecutors said. REUTERS/John Gress
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