Jail looms for newspaper baron Black

Conrad Black, the brash media mogul who vacationed in Bora Bora, rode around London in a Rolls Royce and ended up convicted of swindling shareholders out of millions of dollars, is headed for prison where inmates are paid 12 cents an hour for such jobs as washing windows and mopping floors.

Strong willed, possessed of a powerful ego and given to dizzying flights of rhetoric, the 63-year-old British baron known as Lord Black of Crossharbour is expected to be sentenced Monday. Federal prosecutors say the sentence could be as much as 24 to 30 years, though a recent court filing suggested he could get a more lenient term.

Any stay in the pen will be an inglorious next step for a man who famously brushed aside questions about his expenses as boss of the Hollinger International Inc. newspaper holding company.

"I will not re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility," Black said when asked about his use of the corporate jet for a vacation on the South Pacific island of Bora Bora. When grumbling about money went on, the CEO chortled that his company had become awash in "an epidemic of shareholder idiocy."

Under Black, Hollinger was a media colossus that once owned The Daily Telegraph in London, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Jerusalem Post, plus hundreds of community newspapers across the United States and Canada.

The Canadian-born Black, two other Canadian executives and a Chicago lawyer were convicted July 13 of siphoning off $6 million through a sell-off of Hollinger-owned papers and related deals. They were acquitted of nine charges that the government says would have brought the total loss to $32 million.

Black was also found guilty of trundling a dozen boxes of documents out of his Toronto offices to keep them from investigators.

Black's attorneys have already asked for a new trial, saying it would be "a miscarriage of justice" to let the verdict stand. And while they beef up their ranks for an appeal, George Tombs, author of a Black biography titled "Robber Baron," said the erstwhile corporate titan is on a collision course with the reality of federal prison.

"He doesn't want to be learning new skills in a machine shop and wearing a prison uniform at his age," Tombs said. "And he may have a cellmate who will tell him, do this, don't do that or even to shut up."

Longtime friends say that for all his pomp and circumstance there is another side to Black that could help him adjust to the shock of life as an inmate.

Black is possessed of "a strong equilibrium, he is quite judicious, he is extremely polite and considerate of other people," said Canadian writer George Jonas. In fact, he said, the Black he knows is exactly the opposite of the portrait that often emerges of an arrogant and dominating figure.

Jonas was formerly married to Black's wife, conservative columnist Barbara Amiel Black. Black and Jonas have long since developed a close friendship.

"Frankly, he won me over," said Jonas. "He's a good guy."

Black's legal team argue that the deposed press lord isn't the one who ought to be taking the blame. They point the finger at F. David Radler, Black's partner in building the Hollinger empire.

After decades by Black's side, Radler agreed to plead guilty and became the government's star witness. Under the deal, he expects a lenient 29-month sentence and a $250,000 fine. And Radler expects to serve his time in Canada, where the government may cut short the sentence.

Black's situation is more complicated for a number of reasons.

Prosecutors say he should get more time in prison because he was the mastermind of the scam, that the loss was greater than $20 million and he tried to obstruct the investigation. While he was convicted of crimes that resulted in a $6 million loss, prosecutors say the sentencing ought to take account of all $32 million that they say was pocketed by Black and his co-defendants.

Black's hopes of getting a lighter sentence got a boost recently from the pre-sentence report ordered by U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve. The report, prepared by the government's probation office, clashed sharply with prosecutors on a key point — exactly how big a loss to Hollinger International should be blamed on Black.

Defense attorneys, who won Black acquittal on nine of the 13 counts against him at trial, have recently brought in Jeffrey B. Steinback, best known as a plea bargain specialist. Black has also hired Harvard professor Allen Dershowitz to help with the appeal.

However much legal muscle he brings in, Black will serve time. A key question is where.

If he tries to serve time in Canada, prosecutors may say that he gave up his Canadian citizenship to enter the British House of Lords. As for an American prison, it isn't clear that he will be assigned to the kind of minimum-security camp a non-violent corporate executive might expect.

Wherever he goes, Black must work and there are no executive jobs. Duties include washing windows, swabbing and buffing the floors, cleaning the toilets and picking up cigarette butts.

The pay is the standard Bureau of Prisons rate: 12 cents an hour.

Brian Stewart, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent who has known Black since they were teenagers, said his friend, a convert to Catholicism, can draw on "a deep well of faith."

"He tends to have an optimistic outlook, he has a lot of intellectual interests and he's pretty determined to be a survivor," Stewart said.

Contrary to the notion that only the high and the mighty count with Black, Stewart said his friend has insatiable curiosity about what just plain folks think.

On a 1964 trip to this country, he recalled, Black loved to talk with gas station attendants, waitresses — even a cop who pinched him for speeding.

"He still quotes them," says Stewart. "He doesn't just quote Lord Carrington. He can quote the state trooper who gave him a traffic ticket."

Little has been heard from Black since his trial. Through his attorney, he declined an interview request. Stewart and Jonas said he has remained cool while awaiting sentencing at his estate near Palm Beach, Fla.

Black did surprisingly turn up on Canadian television demonstrating how to press a maple leaf between two pieces of wax paper with a hot iron — should viewers find themselves in a place without maple trees. He also turned to the camera at one point and smilingly told viewers: "You can call me Connie."