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The brilliant career of Mr. Sukonick

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Seven years ago, Darren Sukonick was one of the hottest young corporate lawyers in Canada. At 30, he was on the fast track at Torys, and he'd already been assigned to one of the firm's leading clients -- Conrad Black and the Hollinger group. Mr. Black was on the verge of a blockbuster deal to sell his Canadian newspapers to Izzy Asper's CanWest, and Mr. Sukonick was in the thick of it.

It was a junior lawyer's dream -- a ticket to making partner and the big income that comes with it. Today, Mr. Sukonick's brilliant career is on hold. Although he did make partner, he's spent most of his 30s being grilled by people who are convinced that Conrad Black defrauded shareholders. Now Mr. Sukonick is being grilled by the defence lawyers, who are trying to pin a big piece of the blame on him.

Whose idea were those controversial non-compete payments, anyway? Why weren't they disclosed? Weren't they really performance bonuses dressed up as non-competes to avoid taxes? And if some of this was stinky, whose fault was that? The defence lawyers are claiming that it's the fault of Mr. Sukonick and the other Torys lawyers on the file. After all, it was their job to make sure everything was done by the book.

Mr. Sukonick is a notably handsome guy, with chiselled features and a precise manner that lets you know he's on top of every detail. When stressed or irritated, he gets a little snippy. His testimony was videotaped in Toronto; since he's not a U.S. citizen, he has exercised his right to not show up in person. "He will not come and look this jury in the eye," one defence lawyer huffed in court.

Junior associates at a firm like Torys are elite slaves. They work on huge transactions with senior executives, but are expected to work day and night till the deal is done.

Back in July, 2000, Mr. Sukonick and Beth DeMerchant, who was lead Torys lawyer on the Hollinger file, were working around the clock on the CanWest deal -- a deal worth nearly $4-billion. There were, as usual, plenty of loose ends to be sewn up in a hurry -- the board was set to ratify the deal over a long weekend -- and the e-mails were flying. Among the loose ends was the manner in which two senior executives at Hollinger -- Peter Atkinson and Jack Boultbee -- were to be rewarded for their role in the deal, which was widely regarded as a stupendous coup. Each man was to receive $1.3 million -- a pittance in the bigger scheme. The money looked like a bonus.

But bonuses are subject to income tax; non-competes are not.

So, prosecutors say, at the last minute, Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Boultbee were added to the list of people, along with Mr. Black and David Radler, who were to get non-compete payments.

Mr. Sukonick scribbled their names onto one of the many drafts himself. Everybody saw it, and nobody objected. A few months later, someone asked him whether the money they got had to be disclosed in U.S. securities filings. After checking with someone in the law firm's New York office, he said no. It turned out the advice was wrong.

Compared to the many millions that flowed to Mr. Black and Mr. Radler in this deal, these little sums were nothing. But the prosecution's aim at the Hollinger trial is to turn them into a smoking gun -- proof, the prosecutors hope, that there was a whole lot of cheating going on. However the jury judges Mr. Sukonick -- as a flunky simply doing the client's bidding, or a professional who passed on terrible advice -- the consequences for his firm have already been horrific.

Tainted by its association with alleged frauds, it too has been hit from all sides with threats of legal action and securities investigations. In late 2005, Torys settled with Hollinger International (post-Conrad) for $30-million. Mr. Sukonick's boss and mentor, Ms. DeMerchant -- one of the most successful women in corporate law -- resigned from Torys late last year after a 25-year career. A spokesman for the firm said her decision was personal and unrelated to the Hollinger case. Mr. Sukonick himself is in limbo, relieved of some of his regular workload so he can concentrate on the Hollinger case.

His ticket to the top turned out to be the client from hell. No wonder he's sounding snippy.

mwente@globeandmail.com

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