Former Media Baron Conrad Black's Fraud Trial Approaches

Fallen media baron Conrad Black readily admits he helped his ninth grade classmates cheat, selling purloined exams on a sliding scale, depending on their grades.

He netted $1,400 in the caper; not bad for a 14-year-old Canadian kid back in 1959.

"I am neither proud, nor ashamed of what happened," Black wrote in his memoirs. "It was an awful system whose odiousness was compounded by banality and pretension," he said of his all-boys Upper Canada College, using the effusive language and arrogant tone that has won him many admirers and enemies over the years.

The escapade got him expelled, despite his father's argument before the headmaster that it showed entrepreneurial spirit. The scandal shadowed him throughout his college career, but he would still go on to become one of the world's wealthiest media barons.

The former chairman of the Hollinger International newspaper empire faces charges of racketeering, mail and tax fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a U.S. federal trial that begins in Chicago on Wednesday. He shrugs off the possibility of being found guilty.

"I know I am innocent of the allegations against me, as does almost anyone who actually knows me -- and I am about to prove it," Black wrote in an article for the most recent edition of Tatler, a British magazine.

Black was born in Montreal on Aug. 25, 1944, but he renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to sit in the British House of Lords. He is now trying to regain his Canadian citizenship and has spent the last year awaiting the Chicago trial at his family's Toronto mansion.

An avid historian who has written books on U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, Black recently finished the last draft of a biography of Richard Nixon.

U.S. prosecutors claim the 62-year-old Lord Black of Crossharbour cheated Hollinger stockholders out of $80 million while he sold off company assets. He is also accused of illegally billing Hollinger for a vacation on the Pacific island of Bora Bora; dinners with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; a $60,000 birthday party for his second wife, conservative journalist Barbara Amiel; and a $90,000 restoration of his antique Rolls Royce.

Black and Amiel wed in 1992 after his divorce from his first wife, his former secretary Shirley Walters, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. They became a prominent couple on the social circuit, partying with such celebrities as Elton John and Donald Trump.

But if Black is convicted of all counts, he could be sentenced to up to 101 years in prison, although a significantly lesser sentence is likely. Three other former Hollinger executives are going on trial along with him.

"I'm convinced he thinks he's innocent," Peter C. Newman, an author and journalist who has written extensively about Black, told The Canadian Press. "This is a man who has a huge opinion of himself and genuinely doesn't believe that he could be dishonest, that he could do some of the things that he's charged with."

Black was chairman of the third-largest newspaper group in the world, which owned the London Telegraph, the Toronto-based National Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post, and more than 500 community newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

Black was the company chairman and CEO before he was forced out in 2003. Since his empire crashed amid a storm of shareholder lawsuits and criminal charges, all the large papers except the Sun-Times have been sold and the name of the company has been changed to the Sun-Times Media Group.

The son of a Toronto brewery executive, Black joined with friends F. David Radler and Peter White after his university graduation to buy the Sherbrooke Record, a Quebec daily that became the foundation of their media empire.

Today, Radler is a star witness for the prosecution after pleading guilty to mail fraud and agreeing to testify against Black in exchange for a 29-month sentence and $250,000 fine.

In a March 3 interview with the National Post, the newspaper he founded in 1998, Black said he was confident public opinion was finally beginning to turn in his favor.

"It took an adjustment for people to think of me as an underdog, but that's what has happened," he said. "And compared to the U.S. government, the most powerful institution in the world, most everybody is an underdog."

But it may be hard to portray Black as an underdog to jurors at his Chicago trial. "Conrad on the stand, speaking in his lordly voice, wonderfully dressed, I am imagining, could easily turn off a jury if he is too grand and superior," Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, a social acquaintance of the Blacks, is quoted as saying in the March 12 edition of Macleans, a weekly Canadian newsmagazine.

Black's chief Canadian defense attorney, Edward L. Greenspan, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that his client is misunderstood, that his intelligence is sometimes mistaken for arrogance.

"People who want to disparage him say that he's arrogant -- he uses language with such a facility with words that he's viewed, I think, by some as pompous," Greenspan said.

Black believes a jury of Americans will do the right thing. "I have never had the slightest doubt of the outcome of a fair trial, knowing that the judgment of the legality of my actions will lie in the hands of 12 American citizens, in one of that country's greatest cities. ...," he wrote in Tatler. He said that after he is acquitted, he and Lady Black will divide their time between London and Canada.

"After all that has happened in the past four years, and no longer having much to do with the media, we will be ready for a quieter life," he wrote. "Being falsely accused may be character-building, but it is not much fun."