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8 December 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:28am

Will Conrad Black soon be a free man?

The humiliated press baron's final appeal

By George Eaton

Conrad Black hasn’t done too badly since he was imprisoned in Florida’s Coleman correctional facility in 2008 for embezzling £3m from his Hollinger media empire. The former press baron has used his free time to give lectures to students (not, one hopes, on ethics) and to ensure that his exhausting prose continues to find a home in right-wing titles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Still, Barbara Amiel would undoubtedly like to have her man home by Christmas, and lawyers for Black are appearing before the US Supreme Court today in a final push to have his fraud convinction overturned.

The appeal rests on the claim that lawyers abused the “honest services law”, a federal statute that allows the prosecution of executives who have fallen below the standard of probity expected. Critics contend that the term “honest services” has become an illegitimate catch-all for conduct viewed as unethical.

But lawyers and campaigners warn that a judgment in favour of Black, who has served 22 months of a six-and-a-half-year prison term, would make it harder for US courts to punish white-collar fraud in the future. The man who led the prosecution of Black, Eric Sussman, predicts he will remain in jail for some time yet.

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Black himself objects that he could have been found guilty under the law even if he wasn’t believed to have stolen millions from Hollinger. Confronted by the counter-argument that Black actually did steal millions, his lawyers contend that his wider financial “leadership” overrides this inconvenient fact.

“Under Black’s leadership over nearly two decades, the Telegraph alone enriched Hollinger and its shareholders to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” says the brief. “Black built Hollinger’s international newspaper empire from a mere $20,000 in equity to market capitalisation in excess of $1bn.”

That none of the above is incompatible with Black’s theft won’t, I’m confident, be lost on the court.

 

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