Citizen Black

The trial I'm attending in Chicago – USA v. Conrad M. Black et al. – is officially about whether magnate Lord Black committed 14 counts of criminal fraud, breaches of fiduciary duty, mail-and-wire fraud, and racketeering.

What may really be on trial, however, is the way alleged corporate misconduct is dealt with in the United States today.

Mr. Black, a Canadian-born British citizen and life peer in the House of Lords, is a biographer and a businessman who once ran Hollinger International, a publicly traded, US-based company that controlled the Daily Telegraph (London), The Jerusalem Post, The Chicago Sun-Times and many daily papers in Canada and Australia.

As a Black biographer, I have come to know him quite well in the past six years. Despite his charm and attempts to co-opt me, I have maintained my editorial independence throughout.

I have watched Black's rise and fall up close, trying, like some journalist-witness in "Citizen Kane," to make sense of a larger-than-life press baron who has, on a personal level, seemingly sabotaged himself through greed, provocative behavior, and exhibitionism. On the legal level, of course, he is innocent until proven guilty.

Many journalists are following the Chicago trial in hopes of catching a glimpse of Black and his glamorous wife, Barbara Amiel, or celebrity witnesses such as Donald Trump and Henry Kissinger.

But I am watching for something else. It will be fascinating to see Black, who once controlled the world's third-largest newspaper empire, face a jury of stern, prudent Midwesterners, who receive $40 a day for jury duty.

That tension will surely play a factor in the prosecution, which raises a host of questions about how fair Black's trial will be.

•Will the prosecution focus on Black's personality, morality, and lifestyle to divert attention from the legal issues? Details of Black's luxury lifestyle may be offensive to many people, but are they relevant to a criminal trial?

•Can corporate fraud defendants get a fair trial if their valuable property is forfeited long before the case gets to court, potentially diminishing the defendant's ability to pay for his defense? And if property is forfeited, does that amount to considering a defendant guilty until proven innocent?

The Black trial will, in many ways, be a proxy for intensifying tensions between boards and chief executives in US business.

Black is not the first corporate executive to manipulate the constitution of his boards of directors, stacking them with celebrities who have little experience with high finance, and making sure they are well paid and entertained for just sitting there. Such practices are quite common.

When board members approve lavish compensation packages for executives, they are legally responsible for their decisions. But are they really held to account? The executives who received such excess are often singled out for blame instead.

Corporate governance in America has veered away from its original mission of maintaining ethical standards to become a sort of parasitical growth industry of its own.

True, corporate governance has exposed real problems. But what if corporate governance advocates receive outrageous compensation by grafting themselves onto valuable companies and profiting from any vulnerability? The companies Black used to control have been dismantled, million-dollar-a-year CEOs have been installed, and a lot of shareholder value has been wiped out.

Corporate governance advocates are right to denounce the manipulation, duplicitous behavior, and self-interest of corporate executives they want to drive out of the company. But what if some corporate governance also involves manipulative techniques – such as commandeering the media through selective leaks of damaging information, cowing board members into submission, and lobbying for absurd compensation for investigating and documenting executive improprieties?

As the trial unfolds, some 400 journalists from around the world will be competing for interesting news angles. For my part, I will be watching the judge and jury. Given that much of the evidence of alleged corporate fraud is technical and contextual, I hope the jury – 12 regular citizens – understand and appraise that evidence. Considering all the power politics swirling around them, the judge and the jury may be the only objective people in the courtroom.

George Tombs is an award-winning Canadian journalist. His unauthorized biography, "Baron Black of Crossharbour: Trial by Fire," will be published in September.

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