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Commentary

Justice has been done – and yet ...

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Conrad Black did something totally out of character yesterday.

He shut up.

He did not deliver a thunderous j'accuse against the U.S. justice system. He did not claim that he had substantially vanquished the prosecution, or that his conviction is certain to be overturned on appeal, or that history will vindicate him. He did not declare that he is a completely innocent man. For once, he listened to his lawyers and left well enough alone.

Lord Black was lucky to get 6½ years, and he knew it. That's a year or so for every million dollars that Judge Amy St. Eve says he stole. He'll have lots of time to get his version on the record.

Justice has been done. Yet, there's something to dissatisfy everyone about this case. The defence lawyers can't be happy; after all, their client was absolutely certain they'd get him off. The prosecutors can't be happy. In the end, their mountain of malfeasance amounted to a mouse. A $500-million fraud shrank to $60-million, then $30-million, and finally $6-million, an amount that must be substantially less than the cost of adding Lord Black's head to their trophy wall. They demanded 20 years, and got a third of that.

Nor will Lord Black's incarceration serve a larger social purpose. Contrary to a lot of wishful thinking, white-collar criminals do not, in fact, pose huge problems for the capital markets of North America. This particular cycle of corporate greed, excess and lousy oversight ended several years ago, and the really big-time bad guys are all locked up or dead. By the standards of an Enron, a Tyco or a WorldCom, where top executives set up phony trading schemes and deliberately cooked the books, Lord Black's larcenies were relatively minor stuff.

Meantime, the shareholders he abused are toast. They'd be far better off if his crimes had never come to light. Hollinger stock has lost 95 per cent of its value since he was forced out. His mighty media empire is no more, and the company is a corpse.

Amid the melee on the courthouse steps yesterday, Lord Black looked impeccably serene. He is a man of faith, and he knows he's right with God. He is obviously determined to bear his martyrdom with grace, like the saints of the early Catholic Church who were pierced with arrows, flayed alive or roasted on a spit. Nothing shakes him, for his conscience is at ease.

From the time he stole that school exam - and blamed the teachers - he has possessed a remarkable ability to recast his life's events, so that he is the persecuted hero. In the drama of his life, he is the large man, assaulted time and time again by hordes of vengeful pygmies. This trait has blinded him to his environment. It has led him to make stupid mistakes and fatal misjudgments. Anyone with a less titanic ego and a more pragmatic reading of world events would have admitted error and said "sorry" long ago. But it's silly to expect Conrad Black to show remorse. It's not in his nature.

Not so long ago, he was assuring friends that his acquittal (of which he was certain) would transform corporate governance on a global scale. Circumstances have changed, but not Lord Black's utter certainty that history will judge him innocent. "Prison would be a bore, but quite endurable," he e-mailed a CBC journalist last week. "I can get on with anyone and adjust to almost anything."

Maybe so. But how will he get on with people who don't all share his high regard for himself? How will he adjust to circumstances a wee bit tougher than being stuck with Barbara in Bora Bora with the jellyfish and riffraff? Prison will be hard. He'll be cut off from his e-mail. He'll be separated from those who love him most. He'll probably spend the rest of his life in litigation, and he may never set foot in Canada again.

So, who wins in the end? The lawyers, I suppose. They always do. They've collected more than $100-million in fees so far, and that's just the defence. Not bad for a $6-million fraud. Not bad at all.

mwente@globeandmail.com

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