From the standpoint of the U.S. government, Conrad Black got off very lightly yesterday. Prosecutors wanted to put the former newspaper baron behind bars for up to 30 years, in effect a life sentence. Instead, unless his conviction is overturned on appeal, he will serve 6 years 6 months at a low-security jail in Florida, and could be out a year earlier than that on probation. In the context of the resources the United States threw at the prosecution, and the accompanying overwrought rhetoric, the government must view the results as a failure.
Lord Black was originally charged with 16 offences. On July 13, a jury cleared him of all but three; among the rejected charges was the most serious, racketeering. In a further setback for prosecutors, Judge Amy St. Eve yesterday agreed with a probation officer's pre-sentence report that said the fraud for which Lord Black and his associates were convicted totalled $6.1-million -- not the $32-million claimed by the prosecution. This is no small sum, but it is a pittance next to the shareholder value that has been wiped out since Richard Breeden, the former U.S. securities exchange commissioner who led an investigation into Lord Black's dealings, described Hollinger International Inc. during his tenure as a "corporate kleptocracy."
None of this is to diminish the seriousness of the offences of Lord Black and his associates. Hollinger International was a public company, not a private one, and any non-compete fees should have gone to shareholders - among them Lord Black - rather than into the pockets of those running the company. As well, Lord Black was both reckless and foolish to try to remove boxes from a building despite a court order prohibiting that very act - the substance of his conviction for obstruction of justice. If this is all a tragedy, he was not so much the victim as the author of it. And certainly there was never any possibility that the sentence would be as little as two years, as Lord Black's legal team had suggested. He was not about to receive a sentence shorter than that of his former Hollinger lieutenant David Radler, who struck a deal to co-operate with prosecutors and is expected to receive a 29-month sentence next week as part of a plea agreement.
Even so, Judge St. Eve delivered a sentence too severe for the crime, particularly since U.S. inmates typically serve 85 per cent of their term before they are eligible for parole. In Canada, under our parole rules, he would have served far less time for the same sentence.
Four years would have been ample, given the degree to which Lord Black has already been punished - seeing not only his reputation disintegrate but many of his assets seized. He has been fined $125,000. He must forfeit $6.1-million. His legal costs have been astronomical. The example made of him has already been a deterrence to others who would commit fraud. He also notably made a statement in court regretting the loss suffered by Hollinger International shareholders.
Prosecutors had a Pyrrhic victory on the conviction. They should likewise have received only a Pyrrhic victory on the sentence.