A presidential pardon was predictable. Actually, it was inevitable.
Anyone who followed the trials of Conrad Black, former international media mogul, through the courts in the U.S. and Canada figured this day would arrive — if not through sheer will, then through a little good fortune.
A full executive clemency was granted to the former Canadian press baron by U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who was immersed in the six-year drama that began with complaints from U.S.-based institutional shareholders over management fees at Chicago-based Hollinger International and culminated with the 16-week criminal trial before a U.S. federal judge Amy St. Eve in 2007. The case resulted in three convictions of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice and Black was sentenced to serve his punishment in a Florida prison.
At a time when many in the establishment circles — where Black and his wife Barbara Amiel were once celebrated — had all but abandoned the pair, Trump, then a New York real estate tycoon, remained a loyal friend. And publicly so.
Now, 12 years later, that friendship allowed Trump to make good on a prediction he made in the early days of his friend’s corporate challenges: That Black would “prevail.”
Loyalty aside, Trump could also commiserate with Black. The president could view his current public trials — the incessant Russian collusion accusations, relentless media attacks and other attempts to discredit his legitimate election victory — through the same lens that Black had seen his own challenges years earlier.
The two men may have both presided over business empires, but they don’t share the same temperament, nor does the U.S. president have Black’s refinement, erudition or social skills. Black, a British peer, is an intellectual, having authored critically acclaimed books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and, more recently, on Trump. In its statement Wednesday, the White House referred to Black as “an entrepreneur and scholar… who has made tremendous contributions to business, as well as to political and historical thought.”
The business dealings of Trump and Black had intersected on a real estate deal in Chicago when Hollinger, where Black was then chairman, sold the building that had housed its Chicago Sun-Times to Trump. At its height, Black’s company owned more than 500 newspapers across North America and abroad, including the National Post and the Daily Telegraph in London.
Since the days in 2003 when Hollinger’s institutional investors began agitating for “greater transparency” over management fees paid to Black and a handful of corporate lieutenants, Trump had Black’s back. Although he was not a shareholder, Trump attended the shareholders’ meeting and declared to the assembled investors, “I fully support the company and its management, and in particular I have great respect for Conrad Black.” A year later, as more forces were assembling against Black, Trump made his views known again. “Conrad is a tremendously strong man who will overcome these obstacles in the end. He will prevail,” he told Vanity Fair.
By this time, Black had been ousted from the web of companies he had created after insistent pressure from shareholders. That led to a series of probes by a special internal committee of Hollinger directors, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice. That process yielded the controversial 513-page report by the special committee in November 2004 — famously known as the Breeden report — that alleged Black had been running a “corporate kleptocracy.” It accused him and other executives of “looting” the company on an unprecedented scale and diverting “hundreds of millions of dollars” in management fees to themselves. The report led to criminal fraud charges against Black, Peter Atkinson, Jack Boultbee and Mark Kipnis in 2005.
Black sought help from Trump at his criminal trial, either to serve as a character witness or to make a “cameo appearance” in the courtroom gallery, which was routinely crammed with international media. In the end, Trump never turned up. But his loyalty to Black clearly remained.
Throughout his incarceration in a Florida prison, Black continued to proclaim his innocence and railed against the injustice of the U.S. legal system. He exercised his legal rights and appealed his convictions to both the lower circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Some were overturned, however, the obstruction conviction remained. In all, Black spent three-and-a-half years in prison (although he continued to write for the National Post and other publications). Released in 2012, Black was deported to Canada and has resided in Toronto ever since. Two years later, he was stripped of his Order of Canada.
It is worth noting that U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who relentlessly led the prosecution against Black, is part of the legal team hired to defend former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired in 2017. Patrick Fitzgerald, now in private practice, was a prosecutor alongside Comey in the Southern District of New York in the 1980s. Fitzgerald was also part of the independent counsel for the White House that probed a leak that revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame during the administration of George W. Bush. The fallout led to the conviction of White House adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2005 on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury.
Bush did not grant a pardon to his friend Libby. But Trump did, in 2018. And now he has pardoned Black — who had previously attempted and failed to secure one from Bush before he left office.
Canadian by birth, Black renounced his citizenship in 2001 to become a member of the British House of Lords after the prime minister at the time, Jean Chrétien, said he wouldn’t allow it otherwise. But Wednesday’s pardon wipes the slate clean of Black’s criminal record. It not only allows him to travel again to the U.S., it should enable the former media baron to reclaim that citizenship, which he says he always wanted to keep. In the end, Trump’s executive clemency forgives even if it doesn’t forget the convictions but still, Black has secured his pardon.
Theresa Tedesco was former chief business correspondent for the Financial Post and covered Conrad Black’s trial throughout its entirety.
Join the conversation →