Friday, May 11, 2007

Black vs. Radler

Posted By on 05.11.07 at 10:36 AM

The jury in the Conrad Black trial got a whiff of the essence of Conrad Black Thursday. The prosecutors projected onto a large screen for all to see one of the "musings"--that’s Black’s word--that he occasionally liked to share with other executives of Hollinger International. On this occasion in 2002 minority shareholders had begun to rumble with discontent and Black was considering something clearly disagreeable to him: the trimming of sails.    

“We have pretty well won the battle against the non-compete payments and a decent interval has passed,” Black wrote. “A conciliatory gesture should be made now that could not be construed as a sign of weakness or a confession of excess.” Excess is in the eye of the beholder, and nothing Black beheld troubled him. “These companies [Hollinger International, the holding company Hollinger Inc., and Ravelston, the private firm that controlled Hollinger Inc.] have always been run [as] proprietary businesses where the controlling shareholders take reasonable steps to ensure their comfortable enjoyment of the position they (we, in fact) have created for themselves. Care must be taken not to allow this to degenerate into decadence. . . . But nor should we allow the agitations of shareholders, amplified by certain of our colleagues discountenanced at the performance of their stock options, to force us into a hair shirt, the corporate equivalent of sackcloth and ashes. . . . We have a certain style that all these shareholders were aware of when they came in . . .” 

The musing was presented during the direct examination of David Radler, Black’s former partner, who turned against him and pleaded guilty to fraud. Held to the light one way it’s incriminating, held up another it isn’t. Black is clearly a piece of work. One juror might have decided by now he's guilty as sin while another marvels that he's far and away the most extraordinary person ever to wander into his or her humdrum, midwestern, middle-class life. But such memos--and there have been others--put the silent, brooding Black in the position of the spellbinding stranger who sits across from you at dinner and doesn’t introduce himself. Black has to testify. Otherwise the jury could decide he's guilty because it feels stiffed.

Radler's cross-examination began this week. Black's frumpy Canadian attorney, Edward Greenspan, is a little too enamored of his own legendary wiles. He immediately brought up a trial in Canada Radler had testified at. “You swore to God to tell the truth,” Greenspan said. “I swore to tell the truth,” Radler answered.

“You swore on the Bible?” Greenspan said.  “I don’t remember,” said Radler. “I can’t tell without a transcript.” Greenspan consulted the transcript and reported that it said Radler had been “duly sworn.” 

“If you have a recollection I swore with a Bible,” Radler said, “I’d be pleased to see it.”

Plowing on, Greenspan said Radler had sworn to tell the truth at the trial in Canada and the truth at this trial in Chicago and yet Greenspan had discovered an inconsistency in his testimony. Radler said he could explain the inconsistency. Greenspan didn’t give him the opportunity. He had points to make--and he would make them--about Radler being an admitted liar who could not be trusted here because his prison sentence is contingent on the effectiveness of his testimony. But did Greenspan think that by badgering Radler on the obscure point of whether he’d held a hand on a Bible when he was sworn in years ago in British Columbia he was impressing plain, God-fearing midwestern jurors? That, unfortunately, is how it sounded.

Greenspan led Radler through his 38-year career with Black. The first paper they bought was the Sherbrooke Record in Quebec. Greenspan, who above all else wants to persuade the jury that Radler and Black lived and operated in distant spheres--geographical, professional, social, and intellectual--and therefore Black is not accountable for Radler’s sins, hoped to establish that Radler operated the Record while Black handled the editorial end and conducted himself as a man of the world. He asked Radler if he recalled the piece Black wrote in 1969 on President Johnson that was so marvelous it was read into the Congressional Record.

“No, I don’t remember,” said Radler. Greenspan was astonished. “That’s a big deal, isn’t it?”

"In what sense?” asked Radler. “Are you unprepared to accept the fact this is a big deal in our country--in Canada--to have an article read into the Congressional Record?” Greenspan asked.    

“I don’t think it made a difference for the paper,” Radler said. “The paper was dependent on local revenues.”

This was the Radler that his minions at what’s now the Sun-Times Media Group had come to know and, well, despise--a guy so preoccupied with local revenues that he’s oblivious to what his papers actually publish. But Greenspan sounded out of touch with his audience, maybe the only guy in the courtroom who thinks having something read into the Congressional Record is a life-altering event. Even jurors who think it sounds neat might wonder why it would be a big deal in Sherbrooke, a town in another country.

But it was a small moment in a long cross-examination -- Radler will be back on the stand Monday to endure more pounding from Greenspan, who's clearly getting inside his head. After shying from the word at the beginning, Radler's been reduced to conceding he "lied" and "lied" when confronted by a Hollinger "special committee" and then by the U.S. attorney's office. In the world of Greenspan's dreams, Radler will soon snap and scream, "Yes, by God, I did it all myself. Conrad Black doesn't tell me what to do." Greenspan dug up a 1996 newspaper article that had Radler telling a Toronto reporter, "I am nobody's right-hand man."

Radler didn't want to go there.

"You don't know what a right-hand man is?" Greenspan marveled. "You were the publisher of the Sun-Times. You know what a right-hand man means."

He tried to provoke Radler. "It could mean a flunky, right?"

"I don't believe I'm anyone's flunky," Radler replied.

"You're nobody's flunky, right," said Greenspan.

"That doesn't mean nobody would call me that," Radler said.

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