By TIM ARANGO (NY Times)
CHICAGO, Dec. 10 — In the months since his convictions in July on fraud and obstruction of justice charges, Conrad M. Black, the fallen press baron who once presided over the world’s third-largest newspaper empire, was not above poking fun at himself as he waited to see how long he would spend in prison.
He received his answer Monday as Judge Amy J. St. Eve of United States District Court sentenced Mr. Black to 6 1/2 years in prison on three fraud charges and one charge of obstruction of justice for removing 13 boxes of documents from the Toronto offices of his media company, Hollinger International, an infraction caught on videotape.
“Mr. Black, you have violated your duty to Hollinger International and its shareholders,” Judge St. Eve told Mr. Black. “I frankly cannot understand how someone of your stature could engage in the conduct you did.”
While the sentence means Mr. Black could be nearly 70 when he is released, the amount of time he received was much less than hoped for by prosecutors, who at one time sought a sentence of 24 to 30 years.
Mr. Black, who will most likely serve his sentence at a federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base about 500 miles from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., was allowed to remain free on bail until March 3.
On the sidewalk outside the courthouse, he told the throng of reporters, “I think the fact we’re appealing speaks for itself.”
In some ways, Mr. Black is just another in a long line of white-collar criminals sentenced for corporate fraud. In other ways, he was — as he himself might say in casual conversation — sui generis.
Instead of keeping a low profile after his conviction, Mr. Black became even more public, if possible, in the last few months. He managed to publish and publicize a 1,152-page biography, “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” that contained at least one error: the brief author’s biography says that Mr. Black divides his time between London and Toronto. By the time the book was published, he had already turned over his passport and spent most of his time holed up his mansion in Palm Beach.
Still, that did not prevent Mr. Black from doing television interviews or from participating in a Toronto book signing, thanks to a high-tech device called the LongPen, which allowed him to sign books remotely. During the signing, one questioner even suggested a parallel between that video that sank Mr. Black and the recordings that doomed the Nixon presidency.
In a segment for the satirical Canadian television show “The Rick Mercer Report,” Mr. Black did his best Martha Stewart impression, teaching viewers how to properly wax a maple leaf for decorating. Pressing a maple leaf between two of the hefty biographies he has written, Mr. Black said, “Here we have a perfectly waxed maple leaf, a great solace to everyone and especially to those who, for complicated reasons, can’t at first hand observe the changing of the seasons this autumn in Canada.” (The segment has a second life on YouTube.)
But those fun and games are now largely over. It will now be almost seven years until Mr. Black, who was barred from leaving the United States after his conviction, can return to his native Canada.
In July, nearly four years after the case began, Mr. Black was convicted on four charges — three fraud charges stemming from taking improper noncompete fees and an obstruction of justice charge for removing boxes of documents from his Toronto office, an infraction that was caught on videotape. Mr. Black will have to pay a fine of $125,000.
Mr. Black’s downfall began in November 2003 when the board found that he and other executives had improperly taken about $32 million in payments. The jury, however, found that Black improperly gained $6.1 million, a figure he must now forfeit. Much of the case was centered on noncompete payments from selling newspapers that should have gone to shareholders but instead lined the pockets of Mr. Black and several other executives, who were to be sentenced later in the afternoon.
Mr. Black, who once declared he would “not re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility” when criticized for using shareholder money to pay for a vacation to Bora Bora, and charged a lavish birthday party for his wife at La Grenouille restaurant in New York to his company, was acquitted of charges stemming from those incidents.
The sentencing hearing lasted for more than two hours, as Mr. Black’s defense team cited letters testifying to Mr. Black’s character from friends like Elton John (whose AIDS foundation received a donation from Mr. Black), and the political columnist George F. Will, a longtime friend who wrote of Mr. Black, “He loves this country with a deeply informed passion.”
Mr. Black’s sentencing consultant, Jeffrey Steinbach, even mentioned a letter from a man, not famous, who was once drunk at a party and got a ride home from Mr. Black.
When Eric Sussman, the prosecutor, responded, he noted that the donation to Mr. John’s foundation came from the coffers of The Daily Telegraph.
“Does Elton John really know Conrad Black?” Mr. Sussman said. “The fact of the matter remains that when Mr. Black was asked to go in to his pocket he said no.”
Mr. Black, often described as a millionaire who lived like a billionaire, built a single newspaper in Sherbooke, Quebec, which he bought in 1976, into what was at one time the third-largest newspaper company in the world. Its flagship properties were The Daily Telegraph and The Chicago Sun-Times.