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Courthouse offers Black a silent rebuke

As the mogul's trial begins, Ian Brown takes in the venue's right angles and weird portents

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

CHICAGO — The courtroom, where Conrad Black is this very morning setting out to defend what's left of his fortune and his reputation, is all Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Courtroom 1241 is in the Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. District Court building in downtown Chicago -- one of three Mies buildings around a square on South Dearborn Street -- and the inside is head-to-toe Mies as well. After a while you begin to think, they're trying to make a point here.

There are Mies-designed daybeds and Barcelona chairs in the lobby outside the courtroom, and Mies-inspired cherry-wood tables and benches inside the courtroom and even Mies-style lights on the wall over the heads of the jury box where 12 Chicagoans will decide whether Lord Black will go to jail for anywhere from 12 to 101 years, depending on who you listen to. The coat hooks -- Mies coat hooks! A line of silver spikes, like a torture device, not good for the overcoat! -- and even the carpets are Mies, the man who was the giant of architectural modernism and who designed Toronto's TD Centre.

Which is all very elegant. Very arty. The problem is, Mies van der Rohe's motto was less is more. This is why the entire courthouse here in Chicago feels like a silent rebuke to the more-is-more lifestyle of Lord Black and his beloved wife, Barbara Amiel.

That lifestyle -- or at least allegations of $60,000-plus birthday parties, trips to Bora Bora and the Seattle Ring Cycle paid for by the company, plus more than $80-million in payments that Lord Black's tormentors believe he and his top colleagues should have directed to the company -- is about to come under scrutiny. As in how, exactly, the Blacks paid for it.

And the thing is this: These weird portents are everywhere. Everett Dirksen, the late Illinois boy after whom the building was named, the famous Republican senator with the famously deep voice and deeper oratorical style (he was sometimes known as the Wizard of Ooze) is widely thought, probably incorrectly, to have said, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."

That too seems like a vague admonition to Lord Black as he starts the fight of his life this morning. Mies (and even Dirksen) was all about order, about rules, about what you can and can't do, an idea very much in keeping with the current fervour for corporate governance that landed Lord Black in such hot Illinois water. (Chicago likes to play by the rules too: Traffic officers stand at downtown intersections, handing out $100 tickets for anyone who blocks a bus lane.) There are numbers to prove it. "I haven't followed the case closely," says Michael Dobbins, the clerk of court who presides as the head of the courthouse. "But the statistics are clear. The conviction rate in this building is very high -- better than 95 per cent on criminal cases."

Lord Black and his lawyers insist that his case will be an exception. They'll argue in part that Lord Black did nothing wrong and that he shouldn't be blamed for running the company like a controlling shareholder. But at the moment, before Day 1 has even begun, it looks like it will be an uphill battle.

If he does it the same way he did at his arraignment, Lord Black will walk over to the Dirksen-Mies court box shortly before 9 a.m. from the Monadnock Building, an old-style stone pile (very un-Mies) where Eddie Genson, Lord Black's main Chicago attorney, has had offices since he was an elevator boy there, following his bail bondsman father from courtroom to courtroom.

Wading through the media jackals with Mr. Genson, who drives a scooter because of a disability and has been known to take his cane to the backs of pushy cameramen, will be Lord Black's other Eddie -- Greenspan, the Toronto lawyer renowned for his cross-examinations. (Mr. Greenspan is already relishing the chance to publicly skin David Radler, Lord Black's former partner in alleged crime, who has co-operated with the state in return for a much-reduced sentence and fine.)

Packed around two more tables on the left side of the courtroom will be the prosecution, a young team of U.S. attorneys (Jeffrey Cramer, who is likely to present opening arguments next Monday, is the oldest, at 41). They are reportedly planning to call as many as 60 witnesses (one reason the trial may last four months). The prosecution is short on experience: Mr. Cramer's last case, for instance, was a murdering podiatrist who iced a former patient when she threatened to reveal some Medicare diddling.

Working against Lord Black is that his name is not a household word in the United States. "I've asked a number of people on the street," Mr. Dobbins says. "They wouldn't know who you're referring to."

But Lord Black's toughest adversary in Courtroom 1241 may be Judge Amy St. Eve, who was picked for the Black case by a randomized computer program. "I don't know of any judge that relishes this kind of [long] case," Mr. Dobbins says, but that won't weaken her fervour. Judge St. Eve runs a famously tight ship. The rules for the Black trial are no cellphones, no photographs, no food, no talking and no gestures.

She graduated top of her class at Cornell, and even worked for Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, earning convictions along the way. She moves fast, having already cleared 200 cases from her docket, and doesn't look to be thinking of entertaining too much screwing around by either legal team. All this she does because she is reportedly dedicated to the law. After all, it can't be the pittance of a salary -- roughly $165,000 a year -- district court judges are paid.

But if anything looks bad for Lord Black, it is the famously pro-prosecution slant of the U.S. court system. It moves fast, for starters: Written arguments are preferred to the oral ones Canadian lawyers like, especially as oral arguments tend to be more effective in swaying juries. U.S. prosecutors also don't have to reveal witnesses until the last minute, another advantage that can overwhelm even the most experienced defence attorneys. Mr. Dobbins cites the influence of "the U.S. Attorney-General's office, which has stringent procedures for deciding what comes to trial."

At least as the trial begins in the no-nonsense Windy City, things do not look good for Lord Black of Crossharbour. Undoubtedly he and his lawyers will mount nimble arguments, and the vagaries of a jury trial, which is always a little like playing craps, could take it either way. But at least today, an odds-maker would bet against a victory for Lord Black.

Lord Black may have time to ponder that fact when he leaves the courtroom later today. On the route back to Mr. Genson's office, just outside the square courthouse where right angles are the only angles you can see, is Alexander Calder's famous red steel sculpture, Flamingo. It's abstract, but it feels like it could be a flamingo, all light and graceful and nimble, like the arguments Lord Black and his lawyers hope to make. But it's still 53 feet high, and weighs 50 tons.

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