The reason Black should be commuted is that – living as he was in a $35 million Palm Beach mansion, with his own private plane and apartments in New York and a house in London – he was seen to have epitomised the greed of the age.
The US justice department has confirmed that it is currently considering Conrad Black’s request for a pardon. This could involve either pardoning the offence, which would erase the criminal record, or commuting it.
There are apparently more than 5,000 applications for pardon and commutation already in the justice department’s in-tray. The reason Black should be commuted is that it was perfectly obvious to anybody following the trial that his real crime was not so much that he may have received millions of dollars in so-called ‘unauthorised payments’ (in 2007 he was convicted, with other Hollinger executives of four counts of fraud amounting to a modest £4m and of obstructing the course of justice) but rather that – living as he was in a $35 million Palm Beach mansion, with his own private plane and apartments in New York and a house in London – he was seen to have epitomised the greed of the age.
Had the Blacks lived in a rent controlled walk-up on the Upper West Side, he would not have been charged – let alone brought to trial. I should add, however, that it would been sensible to have settled the case when he could have done, rather than attempt a ‘Sword of Truth’ argument which was always a risky strategy.
Harry K. Thaw, the wealthy heir tried for the killing of architect Stanford White in the early 20th century, wrote in his memoir that ‘if we had been poor the newspapers would have rushed to our defence.’
In fact, Thaw did get off in the end but that was mainly because one hundred years ago the wealthy and powerful rarely got the same rough justice as the underclasses – except when the Establishment wanted to make an example of them, as when Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was prosecuted for homosexuality.
The Conrad trial and attendant media circus had plenty in common with the 1976 Patty Hearst Trial – whose grandfather was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was kidnapped on the Berkeley Campus in 1974 by a group of radical Californian terrorists who then ‘brainwashed’ her into robbing a bank.
During the Hearst trial, the media smelt the money and went in for the kill as they saw her as somebody who represented every privileged rich kid that went to college in the 1960s and returned home spouting Mao or radical chic.
Conrad’s problem at his trial was that although he didn’t necessarily see himself as a Hearst-like figure, he didn’t always understand the Berlin Wall that divides corporate America and celebrity America. Conrad was never not so much a celebrity – like OJ Simpson or Michael Jackson – but rather exemplified, to the jurors at least, the Wall Street excesses of the Enron era.
American middle class and working class jurors can’t identity with defendants like Black or Alfred Taubman, owner of Sotheby’s. Post-Enron, we live in an age where corporate chieftains – even if they have built up their empires by their own boot straps, as Black did – are expected to be holier than thou.
Of course, this is a monstrous hypocrisy on behalf of the justice system as the real crooks in the last decade have not so much been the empire builders and the colourful entrepreneurs like Black but rather the hedge fund kings and the short specialists and the investment bankers whose fortunes have largely been made by insider information and pure greed (such as Lehman where fund managers who ran dodgy funds funded by the sale of toxic sub-prime packages to clients knew they were selling junk product).
Give us an old fashioned newspaper proprietor who can file on time and write his own column and made a lousy British paper great again – rather than the herd of hedge fund white collar criminals who sit daily at the tables of George and Cipriani moaning about the £30k Non Dom tax charge they now have to pay. We live in strange times indeed when running up a $66,000 restaurant bill at Le Grenouille is regarded as more heinous than robbing a bank.
In corporate America, unlike Europe, money is regarded as not just a means to an end – it is also a form of morality. Thank goodness this is not the case in Europe where a man like Black can still rely on his friends like Andrew Roberts and William Rees-Mogg because not having money (any more), or having a criminal record, is not considered a social crime.
In many ways Black has been unlucky in his timing. Had the jurors been able to contrast the alleged expense fiddling – at worst £4 million – of Black with the downright shareholder robbery of the likes of Lehman’s Dick Fuld (who pocketed hundreds of millions whilst CEO of Lehman Bros.) then I suspect he would have never even been brought to trial. In the days of William Hearst, his lawyers would have simply swatted away an irritant investor like Tweedie Brown.