Blog by John Miller

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Free Conrad!

To paraphrase Conrad Black, who was talking at the time about journalists: Ex-cons these days just seem so ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised.

Crossharbour, until yesterday Prisoner No. 18330-424, has made his escape from the slammer after serving 28 months of a 61/2 year sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice. He will be out on bail pending appeal of his conviction, and in a Chicago court yesterday, Judge Amy St. Eve set rather lenient terms for him -- a $2 million unsecured bond -- although he won't be able to leave the United States.

She turned down his lawyer's request that he be allowed to live in Canada, in one of the few homes he has left, a heavily mortgaged pile in Toronto's exclusive Bridle Path. But she did agree to let a friend bail him out. American businessman Roger Hertog, one of the investors who teamed up with Black to launch the now-defunct New York Sun newspaper in 2002, put up the two mil. Conrad, according to this story in the Globe and Mail, has run out of that kind of chump change and needs every penny to pay for his own legal bills.

The last time Judge St. Eve granted Conrad bail, it was $20 million -- a sign of just how far down in life the former media baron has dropped.

When he gathered up his things and walked out of a federal minimum-security prison in Coleman, Fla. (close to Disney World), he embarked on his most challenging and outrageous role yet -- as aggrieved victim of America's arbitrary, corrupt justice system.

He won support last month when the U.S. Supreme Court significantly narrowed the interpretation of a key legal theory used by the prosecution to secure his conviction for fraud in 2008. It said his jury received improper instructions, and sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for review. For the first time, legal observers say he could beat the whole rap.

We need to remember that the fraud case against Black focused on $6.1 million that he allegedly skimmed from his company, Holinger International, by getting a compliant board packed with his friends to approve "non-compete" payments and the sale of some of their newspapers to Black for as little as a dollar each. We also should remember that he was caught red-handed obstructing justice, when an after-hours security camera captured him and his chauffeur taking evidence out of his Toronto office by the boxload.

Another Canadian media baron, the late Ken Thomson, once told British author George Tombs (who wrote Robber Baron, an unauthorized biography of Black) that "Things will end very badly for Conrad. He has taken far too much money out of his company. He got greedy, and he will pay for it."

The bad ending may still happen. Besides the cost of appealing his conviction, Black also faces a multimillion-dollar battle to defend himself against charges filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He is also facing allegations from the Internal Revenue Service that he owes $70 million in unpaid taxes and penalties.

Little remains of the media empire Black once controlled before he was forced out in 2003. His newspapers once reached a combined 4 million readers a day. But the flagship Telegraph of London has been sold and his core U.S. holding, the Sun-Times of Chicago, fetched just $5 million in 2009. Canada`s prestigious Southam chain, which he bought, fattened up and sold at a profit to the unfortunate Asper family, has just emerged from bankruptcy protection under new owners.

Black's days as a tycoon are over. As one of his old friends, Hal Jackman, points out, "Ì don't think people will line up to give him $100 million to buy a newspaper company." He will likely spend his time preparing for court, writing a second volume of memoirs and perhaps toiling away at a trade that his plundering of newspapers, and the layoffs that helped pay for it, have made increasingly chancy.

Freelance newspaper columnist.