Born to Shop: Corporate greed goes to jail

Conrad Black was born to shop. And he liked to do it with other people’s money.  His wife Barbara Amiel Black, longtime Maclean’s…

Conrad Black was born to shop. And he liked to do it with other people’s money. 

His wife Barbara Amiel Black, longtime Maclean’s gadfly, could spend other people’s money just as easily.

She liked to tip the doorman at posh New York clothing retailer Bergdorf Goodman — and then expense it to her husband’s company, Hollinger International Inc.

Lord Black was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on December 10th. 

In Canada, some of us have never been so happy to see a rich bastard rot.

Without the smallest effort to hide it, Black has always sold out to the highest bidder; he gave up his Canadian citizenship, he gave up the right of small newspapers to maintain independence, he stole the editorial dignity of his two major Canadian publications by using them as personal podiums for him and his wife during his trial.

Yes, a dreary six and a half years doing menial jobs in jail … It couldn’t have happened to a greedier guy.

In July, Black was convicted on three fraud charges stemming from taking US$6 million in improper non-compete fees from Hollinger International shareholders. (Essentially paying himself to compete with a company he already owned).

The final conviction is my personal favourite — an obstruction of justice charge for removing boxes of documents out of his Toronto office, an infraction that was caught on videotape. He was already under investigation at the time.

I remember wondering how someone could be so stupid.

And yet we all know Lord Black is anything but dumb. Only very greedy.

Starting with a single daily in 1966, Black built a media empire that was once the third largest newspaper company in the world.

His company published the Daily Telegraph in London, the Chicago Sun-Times and Canada’s own National Post.

But although news was his bread and butter, he never thought much of the people who created it.  As a young man he sent a letter to the members of a Canadian Senate committee that was conducting hearings on the mass media.

“My experience with journalists,” he wrote, “authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised.”

Age hasn’t mellowed him on this point.

As he entered Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Building courthouse on July 10, 2007 he flipped reporters the finger.

Another person who probably enjoyed a celebratory drink on Monday is Jean Chretien.

The former prime minister fought a high-profile battle to stop Black from becoming a member of the British House of Lords in the early 2000s.

While Chretien was criticized for using an obscure House of Commons resolution to block the appointment, Black used the National Post as a megaphone for running down Chretien’s government.

Black eventually received his peerage but had to forfeit his Canadian citizenship in order to become “Baron” Black of Crossharbour.

He became persona non grata in the red chamber when he was convicted earlier this summer.

Aside from wanting to become a member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs it was the extravagant lifestyle that made Black a lighting rod for criticism. 

Writing in The Guardian, columnist Andrew Clark nailed it when he noted Black, with his “Rolls-Royce lifestyle of vintage wine, tuxedos and multiple homes is key to his downfall.” 

Black explained his situation another way: “Since biblical times, and probably before, the wealthy have been envied and condemned.”

During court proceedings, that Rolls-Royce lifestyle was on public display.

His company ate a $90,000-bill to refurbish a 1958 Rolls-Royce limousine that Lord Tubby and Babs used while in London.

He spent $33,000 for a 1920s Chinese rug and had a $17,799 music system installed in an apartment that he lived in two months of the year. 

Other gems included Indian white marble reliefs of elephants for $17,710, a $9,800 diamond vault, a pair of Louis XVI-style painted rectangular stools worth $9,800, and a pair of amethyst spherical jars for $12,000.

And Lord Black just couldn’t live without a $12,500-mahogany and porcelain shaving kit, which had once been used to groom the chin of Napoleon.

What might be most shocking in all of this is the jury condoning Black’s sordid spending.

It found that his use of company money to hold a birthday party for his wife and his use of a corporate jet for a private holiday was on the up and up.

The $63,000-birthday party was held at La Grenouille, one of New York’s most expensive restaurants, in honour of Barbara’s 60th birthday.

At the “Frog Pond,” which it is affectionately called by regulars like the Blacks, Conrad and Babs were joined by 94 friends and business contacts, including comb-over reality-TV millionaire Donald Trump and the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. More than $40, 000 of the bill was covered by Hollinger.

It was these flamboyant displays of wealth more than the mundane thievery that defined Black and solidified his reputation as a spoiled rich guy who deserved what he got. 

One question yet to be answered is where Black will serve his sentence.

Unlike in Canada where many criminals only serve a third of their time Black will serve 85 per cent of his penalty somewhere in the United States prison system.

What we do know (and this is just too delicious!), is that he will be made to work at some mundane task, such as raking leaves, cutting grass, mopping floors or scrubbing toilets for the princely sum of 12 cents an hour.

Here’s hoping the paparazzi who spend their days trying to make Britney Spears crash her car can snap a few photos of that.

More public comeuppance is the best medicine for a bastard named Lord Black.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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