How strange it is that success can be such an impostor and only a warm-up for the main act of self-inflicted tragedy yet to arrive.
When Lord Kylsant of Carmarthen lost all hope of appeal in 1931, the wealthy titan was taken off and spent the next year in London’s bleak Wormwood Scrubs prison. Until Conrad Black, he was the only member of the British House of Lords ever to be convicted of fraud in the management of a publicly traded company. While prison was a stunning downturn for this Napoleon of the seas, as he was called for the formidable shipping empire he created, he had a private cell and was permitted to have his meals brought in from a first-class caterer.
Conrad Black, the first British peer to be incarcerated in the history of the United States, will not be so fortunate. There will be no privacy in his lodgings at the federal correctional complex at Coleman, Florida, and his meals are unlikely to be catered by his favorite Palm Beach restaurants.
He will doubtless persist in proclaiming his innocence on all charges and maintain that full acquittal on appeal is a virtual certainty. In reality, the man who often sounds like some character out of Charles Dickens, and not one of his more sympathetic protagonists at that, stands a greater chance of stringing all his prodigious and weighty words together and scaling down from his prison window past the unsuspecting eyes of his less than erudite guards.
There would have been many steps that could have been taken along the way to avoid the hard thud of the prison gates that swung closed behind him today and will remain so for most of the next 78 months. Much less brilliant men might have taken those other paths. One of the many mysteries that masks Conrad Black is why he did not.
He has spent considerable time over the past few years describing his role as a “freedom fighter” and threatening to take on the cause of prosecutorial overreaching. His friends claim that becoming an anti-corporate governance zealot remains a distinct possibility for this man of many talents. Whether anything will come from his newfound role as the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter of wrongly convicted corporate felons is yet to be seen. A predicate for such interest in the abuses of the criminal justice system or the plight of the less fortunate has never figured prominently in Conrad Black’s writings or those of the high profile friends that now rail at his injustice, for that matter. And it is a hard case to make that a man who has been able to spend tens of millions mounting the best legal defense possible -tens of millions of other people’s money via the shareholders of the former Hollinger International- was disadvantaged or the victim of abuse by the legal process.
A case can be made, however, that there was a greater transgression at work here than the one for which Conrad Black was convicted. For many years, hundreds of millions in fees and payments were siphoned from Hollinger and paid to Ravelston, the private holding company run by Black and Radler, which itself turned out to be a corporate felon. The outrage is that those payments were fully approved by Hollinger’s board without batting an eye. Yet most directors, according to company documents, didn’t understand why the payments were being made or even the purpose of Ravelston. Corporate governance at Hollinger was little more than a social club where directors partied and ate fine lunches and in the end seemed to have little energy left to do anything more than lift their Conrad Black-supplied rubber stamp with the word YES emblazoned on it in baronial font.
There were also the injustices of the $20 million bill that the internal investigation of Hollinger chalked up under Richard Breeden, and the subsequent corporate welfare program that the Hollinger group became for lawyers, management and directors who always had their hands outstretched for another check while in effect presiding over the disintegration of the company. The fact that no laws were broken by these actors in no way lessons the outrage their actions represent.
The greatest “crime”, however, is reserved for the man at the top. In that category, one looks not at a breach of securities laws or federal codes but at the larger offense of a person who squandered the rare opportunity to influence the course of events and make the world a better place for it. Law breaking by men and women whose lives were stacked against them from the start, while never excusable, is perhaps easier to understand. When all you have known is crime and criminal influences from an early age, the ability to find a better path is strewn with obstacles. But when there is the gift of affluence and privilege from birth and great wealth, fame and power amassed along the way, as there was for Lord Black of Crossharbour, the road taken to crime offends the senses of civilized men and women to the core.
So disconnected from the facts that led him to this latest step in a progressive march downward, Mr. Black writes in today’s National Post:
We have a Toronto court to thank for the massive and misleading exposure that the grainy security film that caused me to appear furtive, has caused. We have the same court to thank for a number of other unjust decisions.
So now it is the “graininess” of the security film that caught him removing the boxes from his Toronto Street office that is the culprit, along with a string of other players from investors to prosecutors. It is they who are responsible for his fate. Not him. Never him.
I am well aware of the capacity of courts, agencies and commissions to act incorrectly when it comes to the rights of individuals. Often it is out of a lack of competence. Sometimes it is the result of malice. I have strongly condemned such conduct in the past. I wish we had heard from Mr. Black and his newspapers on this subject in the past. It might have helped to avoid a number of lives being ruined. But as I have noted above, injustice rarely befalls those with vast resources to pursue their rights in the avenues of both the legal system and the court of public opinion. And if I believed for one moment that Mr. Black had been disadvantaged by a significant manifestation of bias in the legal system, I would be the first to come to his defense. To whom among the unjustly treated, other than himself, has Mr. Black ever come to the defense?
One also is prompted to wonder, if Mr. Black has so many important facts to marshal in his defense, which are voluminously detailed in his column today (and how many other convicted felons do the publishers and editors of the National Post permit to make their appeal case in an Op-Ed column?) why on earth did he refuse to take the stand at his trial?
His Palm Beach mansion has more bathrooms than the accommodation he must now share with in excess of 180 fellow inmates. His address, which from birth included the more prestigious names in Toronto, New York, Palm Beach and London, will now be among the most infamous: the U.S. federal prison complex at Coleman. How ironic it is that the man who boasted that the prosecution’s case was “hanging like a toilet seat around their necks” may well end up cleaning such fixtures as part of his life as Coleman’s newest inmate. His newly acquired dog will have more freedom and live a life of greater splendor than will Mr. Black for the next several years. A man who has known the rarest of luxuries on the grandest scale will soon discover that the simple act of opening a refrigerator door for a glass of milk or taking a stroll down the street on a warm summer evening are things to be envied in the lives of the most common of individuals.
It is not just the contrast from a world of mansions, limousines and privileged society to one of bars, starchy food and shared showers that is difficult to grasp here; it is the reality of what might have been that will not now be; the unfulfilled accomplishments and potential successes of a man of uncommon ability, but regrettably of rather common criminal persuasion. Gone is the Argus empire he effectively inherited. Little remains of the newspaper domain he once ruled. Discarded in a foolish fit of pique is the Canadian citizenship he exchanged for a title and an ermine-fringed robe from another land. However responsible Mr. Black is for his fate, one cannot but ponder how strange it is that success can be such an impostor and only a warm-up for the main act of self-inflicted tragedy yet to arrive.
Mr. Black once boasted in a BBC interview that if he had to go to prison, he would wear the sentence like “a badge of honor.” There was no award ceremony evident as he arrived at the Coleman prison facility at noon today in a Cadillac with darkened windows. My father used to counsel that one of the tests of a bright person was the ability to make a sensible point without sounding like an idiot. Mr. Black is a bright man. On too many occasions over the past number of years in the things he has written and said (the “renunciation of the rights of the French nobility;” comparing federal prosecutors to “Nazis,” etc.), Mr. Black has sounded a few points lower than his IQ has been rated.
The tribulations that lie ahead for him will be significant, and the distress imposed on his family and friends is truly unfortunate. But the fact remains that in too many ways when Mr. Black has been the focus of hope and great expectations, he has disappointed and left those who have looked up to him feeling empty.
Conrad Black has enjoyed many honors in his life, some of which have been attached to his name. What he might have done with them and what his legacy might otherwise have been, will be a mystery forever lost in the mists of history unwritten. Overshadowing all of this is the fact that Conrad M. Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KCSG, who once reigned over an empire that saw the doors of kings, presidents and world luminaries open wide to him, is inmate number 18330-424, lord now only of his own bunk bed.
If there could be a less predicted or more bewildering turn in the life of a man, imagination fails to conjure up what that might be.
As of 8 pm EST, the Bureau of Prisons information posting regarding its custody of Conrad Black (below) had not been updated.