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Black, ever hopeful of acquittal, buries the hatchet in old quarrels

From Monday's Globe and Mail

ORLANDO, FLA. — As he prepared to go to jail today, Conrad Black has been making peace with some former foes.

In an e-mail last week, Lord Black mentioned that conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who died last week, met him several times recently to patch up their differences. Last fall, Mr. Buckley suggested in a column that Lord Black was probably guilty of his crimes.

"He was a great man and a dear friend," Lord Black wrote. "He was in Fort Lauderdale in Jan. and Feb., and we had dinner three times and lunch once. He was an inspiration, right to the end."

Toronto businessman Hal Jackman, who tangled with Lord Black years ago, visited him recently for a long lunch. He said he found Lord Black "not morose or depressed and not going to give up."

Lord Black said in a series of e-mail exchanges over the weekend that he was ready for prison and he even joked about what he might read while locked up. "I told you a long time ago I'm ready for anything," he wrote. As for his reading: "You can read what you want. I might even take the G&M [The Globe and Mail]."

"Anything" arrives some time before 2 p.m. today, when Lord Black walks into a Florida prison and begins serving a 6½-year sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice over the theft of $6.1-million (U.S.) from Chicago-based Hollinger International Inc. After he surrenders, Lord Black will be fingerprinted, photographed, searched and given a DNA test.

He will be one of about 2,000 low-security prisoners at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Coleman, Fla. And instead of Lord Black, he will be known simply as inmate 18330-424. He will share a room in the prison's barracks-style accommodation.

In an e-mail to an Irish newspaper, Lord Black expressed an interest in teaching other inmates. Whatever job he gets in jail, his pay will start at 12 cents an hour. Most of the low-security inmates at Coleman, about 80 kilometres northwest of Orlando, are doing less than 10 years for non-violent drug and firearms offences.

It's a remarkable come-down for one of Canada's most colourful business tycoons. Lord Black once ran one of the largest newspaper empires in the world, with hundreds of papers stretching across Canada, the United States, Britain and Israel. He used to hobnob with royalty, heads of state, powerful business figures and even rock stars, entertaining many of them at his mansions in Palm Beach, London, New York and Toronto.

But today nearly all the newspapers have been sold and the empire's parent company, Hollinger Inc., is in bankruptcy protection. Lord Black's homes in London and New York were unloaded years ago to cover his legal bills, which continue to mount thanks to a stack of civil claims. Even his once loyal business partner, David Radler, turned and helped to put him in jail.

Mr. Black has continued to proclaim his innocence and insisted that that one day "justice will finally prevail."

"I still expect a complete acquittal," Lord Black said by e-mail over the weekend. "All 16 of the opening charges were nonsense, and the remaining ones are no less so than they were then."

Lord Black is appealing his conviction and in his e-mails, he expressed complete confidence that all of the charges will be thrown out. He even found a silver lining in a ruling last week by three judges of the Seventh Circuit Appeal Court in Chicago who denied his request to remain free on bail while the case proceeds. (The judges continued bail for two co-defendants, John Boultbee and Peter Atkinson, citing their conviction on fewer charges.)

"The judges' comments on [two fraud] counts make it clear the government's case is still disintegrating," Lord Black said in an e-mail. "That will continue and justice will finally prevail."

Andrew Frey, a New York lawyer handling Lord Black's appeal, spoke with Lord Black briefly over the weekend and in an e-mail he remarked on his client's composure.

"He is a very resilient person, and he will manage to cope with this injustice if he must," Mr. Frey said in an e-mail yesterday. "I hope his incarceration will be brief, as I believe that the merits panel cannot help but see the great strength of the arguments being made on his behalf. But even one day of unjust incarceration is one day too many."

The appeal court plans to hear the case in June and Mr. Frey expressed optimism that Lord Black could yet be released on bail. "No way of telling, but if the court concurs at least tentatively with my view of the case, there is a good chance Conrad would be released on bail shortly after the argument, without awaiting the opinion," he wrote.

But others say the process could take many months. One source familiar with the case said the appeal court is considering several other cases that raise similar issues. The judges may want to wait for those rulings before deciding on Lord Black's case. If so, it could be months before they render a decision. And even then, there is no guarantee Lord Black will be successful on all of the charges against him.

If Lord Black's appeal fails, he must serve 85 per cent of his sentence before being eligible for parole. Because he is a British citizen, he would then be sent to an immigration holding centre to await deportation.

There has also been some talk of a pardon for Lord Black. U.S. President George W. Bush is entitled to pardon anyone he wishes, the logic goes, and Lord Black is well connected to former president George H. W. Bush, who was on his advisory board at Hollinger for years. Edward Greenspan, one of Lord Black's lawyers, said yesterday that there is no barrier to pardoning a foreign national that he is aware of.

With a report from Patricia Best

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