In conversation: Conrad Black

On scrubbing showers, navigating the prison economy and getting used to sleeping alone

On scrubbing showers, navigating the prison economy and getting used to sleeping alone

Photograph by Steve Simon

Q: I want to go back to something near the start of your troubles. Peter C. Newman predicted that you would get 15 years in jail, that you would be raped in prison, and that your wife Barbara Amiel would leave you and return to London for her fifth husband. Did he hit the mark on any of that?

A: No, he was rather wide of the mark on all of those. He missed completely on the last two. Where I was—there is practically no violence in this particular prison, and there certainly wasn’t anywhere around me or with anyone that I dealt with. The only homosexual activity is voluntary, and however much of it there is, it isn’t oppressive, and is not otherwise unconsensual. But on the first point, as you know there were 17 counts and four of them were not proceeded with; nine were rejected by the jurors, and the remaining four were vacated unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court. Two of them were spuriously retrieved by the appellant panel that the Supreme Court excoriated, but in the perverse American manner had been sent back to the same panel for the assessment of the gravity of their own errors. So the grand total that I ultimately will have served is three years, even though anyone reading the relevant transcripts and filings can see that nobody amongst my co-defendants—including myself—broke any laws at all, and none of us would have dreamt of such a thing.

Q: You admit in the book to having missed a shift in the zeitgeist toward higher standards of corporate governance, and I was wondering if that was something you missed as much as didn’t agree with.

A: Well, the two I’m afraid run somewhat together. We had a very long and unbroken record—or practically unbroken—of taking distressed properties and fixing them up, both in quality and in profit level, and that was what our business was, producing quality products profitably. So my objection was this attempt to shunt the discussion with the shareholders into these issues of secondary relevance. On the other hand I must admit—as I did admit in my book—that I should have been more aware of how much shareholder and financial community and financial press attention was at that time already being focused on things like that.

Q: You were extremely worried during this time—it comes out in the book—about your personal financial position. It was the key to your survival and your ability to fight. I had no idea that your access to your wealth really was what was keeping you afloat.

A: Yes. Well, you see, the way the system works is that there are freezes on any trades in securities in companies under the kind of scrutiny that ours were, so you couldn’t realize on that if you wanted to. And then because of the publicity, I couldn’t find anyone to whom I could sell anything, other than a bottom-feeder or a vulture who would try to take advantage of me. All of a sudden, for my purposes, if I was trying to realize any money, nothing had much value, you see? Now, I managed to get ’round that eventually, but it requires a lot of setting things up carefully and moving with less speed and less liquidity than would normally be available, and yet the legal profession in these kinds of things is terribly expensive.

Q: On that note, tell me about Brendan Sullivan.

A: [He was] chairman of the Washington law firm Williams & Conway, and they’ve had a great many famous cases, including the defence of [Bill] Clinton in his impeachment case, and the civil complaints of the Democratic party after the Watergate affair.

Q: And you hired him, paid him about $9 million in fees, and in the end didn’t get a hell of a lot in return for it.

A: I’m afraid that is substantially true.

Q: But how could he charge you so much without really producing anything? He didn’t take your case in the end, did he?

A: No. No, he did not. He’d requested a large retainer of at least $15 million, and in order to be sure that I had that cash ready I sold the co-operative unit that I owned in New York City on Park Avenue. I sold it at quite a respectable profit, and the government was aware of that through, in fact, illegal telephone intercept, as the devices were all discovered when we moved the furniture out of the apartment. Then they, on the basis of a completely spurious FBI affidavit, they represented that I had paid an insufficient amount of money to the company—the company I was chairman of—to buy this apartment. But they got an ex parte proceeding in which a magistrate authorized the seizure of the proceeds of the sale with no notice to me. So the closing came, my counsel were there with the buyer’s counsel, and the FBI did an elephant walk through the room, picked up the cheque. The buyer had my apartment, the government had my money, and I didn’t have anything. And they knew perfectly well that would prevent me paying the retainer to Brendan Sullivan promptly.

Q: Normally I wouldn’t ask somebody about their personal financial position, but you wrote about it, so I was surprised at two or three things. One, most of your assets were in real estate. Why?

A: The largest asset by far was the control position in the company we directed, but that was frozen, and it rapidly deteriorated in value as these vandals with court protection destroyed the companies, wiping out $2 billion of shareholder value. Only about 15 per cent of that was mine.


Q: Is it common for people who build their own companies to have most of their wealth invested in those companies?

A: Yeah, sure, it’s quite common. When people are controlling shareholders that’s often how things are.

Q: At one point in this whole mess, because of your inability to access your wealth you were down to your last hundred thousand dollars. Had you ever, in your adult life, been that strapped before?

A: No. No, and not my last hundred thousand dollars in terms of assets, but everything had to be paid right away. You had no access to credit other than loan sharks, so it was a constant battle to keep enough liquid money around, to pay counsel and, since I had some fairly large homes, they did require some money to operate them. I got through it all, you know. I’m not a poor person today. I certainly am a less well-to-do person than I was, but it’s all right, it’s only money and I can build back from where I am if that’s what I want to do.

Q: By most people’s standards you’re still a wealthy man.

A: By the standards of contemporary fortunes I was never a tremendously wealthy man at the best of times, but I was a wealthy man and I am a less wealthy man now.

Q: So we go through the trial, most of the government’s case is knocked away, but you are convicted on three charges of fraud and one of obstruction of justice, and the latter—the obstruction charge—centres around that video of you coming out of your office with boxes, caught on a security camera, looking furtive, red-handed. What was going on there?

A: The famous picture of my pointing at the camera was that I was saying to my assistant and my driver that I certainly wanted to make sure this was all captured on film because I didn’t want any suggestion of anything surreptitious happening. Even though I technically owned the building where I had had my office for 27 years, one of the Toronto courts said I had to leave the building. We had six business days left, my assistant put some things in boxes, and had asked them to be moved, and then there was an intervention asking that they not be moved from the representative of the court-appointed inspector. So when I arrived later on in the day I spoke to the acting president of the company who said, “That’s fine to move it,” after questioning my assistant about the contents. I knew nothing about the contents, I just asked her if they contravened the order that we were under, and they didn’t. And in fact, everything in there was either totally personal or it was business-related and had already been handed over in complete compliance to five different subpoenas for documents from the United States. Every page we had in there had already been copied and sent away, and so it was a totally innocuous act.

Q: How would you explain, then, the court’s logic convicting you?

A: I think even the defence counsel who represented me on that particular item acknowledged they could have put up a better defence. The film, as you say—I mean, you’ve described it yourself, I suppose, quite accurately—that I appeared to be furtive and red-handed. And the jurors, as they acknowledged in post-trial interviews, did not always follow the judge’s instruction to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt. They got to the point, where one of the jurors was told by a relative that the speculation in the press was that they were just a bunch of yokels who would never be able to reach a verdict in such a complicated case, and this juror said, “So we really got to reach a verdict.”

Q: Tell me what it was like walking into prison for the first time.

A: Well, by the time it finally happened, my attitude was, “This has gone on so long and been so horrifying it can’t be worse than what’s happening now.” So to the extent that it is apparently survivable, I can start to develop a comfort level that I will in fact survive it and have a life after this appalling nightmare. And I had spoken with someone who had been in that particular facility, a low-security prison, who assured me there was no violence other than the occasional scuffles between people that didn’t amount to much and just occurred because individuals were ill-tempered, and that it, while sometimes quite tedious, was eminently survivable.

Q: What does it mean to be processed?

A: You, first of all, have to take off all your clothes and you’re searched . . .

Q: Thoroughly searched.

A: Thorough search, yeah. Intrusively, I think is the usual description. Then you answer medical questions and a lot of other questions, and they give you a card with your number on it, they issue some sort of basic clothing, and then they tell you where you’re supposed to go to live and approximately how to get there.

Q: And you were never handcuffed at any time during this, were you? I don’t ever remember you being in those pictures that you see on TV.

A: No. I was handcuffed when there was a move—that proved to be mistaken—to move me to another location because they thought I was being called as a witness in a civil proceeding in which I was in fact the plaintiff . . . fortunately the judge’s order arrived before I had to get on the bus, but in the meantime you have that very elaborate form of having manacles on your feet—chains, you know—as well as being handcuffed.

Q: What’s that sensation like?

A: It’s interesting in that it is so restrictive and demeaning, you feel intensely vulnerable. I knew that they were making a mistake and—incompetent though the Bureau of Prisons often is—this would come to light and it wouldn’t go very far, so I could look at it in a more relaxed manner than I would if I thought I would have to travel across the country in that condition.

Q: I don’t want to suggest that the time at Coleman was leisurely, but you weren’t busting big rocks into little rocks. I was kind of surprised at how much free time you had.

A: I don’t think in federal prisons in the U.S. you have them out breaking stones, I think that may be state prisons. In a low-security federal prison, everybody is supposed to have a job. In my case, some people in the library, who were aware of the book on [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt that I had written, got the head of the education section to engage me as a tutor, and I had a very satisfying job there. I worked quite hard at it.

Q: And you write in the book about your enormous pride in some of the progress that your students made.

A: Enormous in the sense of pride in them, not in myself.

Q: Yes.

A: This is true. I mean, some of them were very surly and terribly under-educated in formal terms when we started. Once they could see that there was a purpose to it, and that it was a way of getting something useful out of this unpleasant experience, they applied themselves. It was very heartening to see how hard they worked, how people who had been told all their lives they couldn’t possibly succeed at anything were so excited—and justly excited—because it was a great achievement for them.

Q: On one occasion you speak about cleaning a shower stall, and you attracted a crowd. What was going on there?

A: Well, apparently I was slightly late leaving in the morning, so the counsellor said, “All right, well then you can’t leave for an hour,” which is when the next opportunity was, “and so in the meantime you go and work with the men in the shower room.” And so I cleaned the shower stall that I normally used, and I cleaned it very thoroughly. And I didn’t attract the audience in the sense of there was any great merit to how I did it—I mean, cleaning a shower stall is an important activity but not an especially stylish one—but the counsellor and some of his chums who were correctional officers thought it was so uproariously humorous that a man of my alleged means would be cleaning a shower stall that they turned it into a spectator sport. I must say it was all quite good-natured, it wasn’t nasty.

Q: And you gave them a good show?

A: No one disputed that the stall was clean!

Q: How sophisticated is the economy within the prison? I imagine, especially in the kind of facility that you were in, that there are some pretty cagey operators.

A: Extremely so. It’s very sophisticated in the sense that you have tremendously talented craftsmen. I mean, if there’s a problem with your eyeglasses, or a problem with your radio, there are people who can fix them. And it’s also sophisticated in the upper ranges of what you might want in terms of consumer value, because there is some degree of smuggling there, and because all inmates who receive visitors are strip-searched at the end of the visit, really none of the smuggling is through prisoners’ families or other visitors, it’s all through corrupted correctional officers. If you really wanted to, you could get a cellphone—which is forbidden. You could get a bottle of good whisky—which is forbidden. Now, I never touched any of that because I conducted my battle with the U.S. authorities and this unjust prosecution entirely through the courts, and the last thing in the world I wanted was any needless dispute with the officials of the Bureau of Prisons.

Q: What was the worst moment for you in prison?

A: The worst was when the Court of Appeal in Chicago so cavalierly treated our case. We had a very strong appeal, as was ultimately demonstrated by the Supreme Court of the United States, and the chairman of the appellant panel would not allow my counsel to finish a sentence. It was the most disgraceful thing I have seen in a court in a serious country. I didn’t actually see it, but I heard the audio and I read the transcript. And it reminded me—not to be tendentious here—but it reminded me of these news films of the Nazi People’s Court after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July of 1944, where Judge Freisler shouted at the prisoner. It was a fantastic spectacle in what is generally a distinguished jurisdiction in Chicago and it was obvious that we had no chance in that court.

Q: Through the whole of this process, Conrad, you had some friends who left you and some who stuck beside you. I’m just going to give you some names. Henry Kissinger.

A: I’ve had a great reconciliation with him. I’d been here in New York for four months, and he went to some lengths to see me, and I told him what my objections were to what he’d done, and he . . .

Q: He failed to defend you after having called you on several occasions an indispensable pillar of his existence, I think that was the phrase.

A: Pillar of my life, but he said that and wrote that a number of times. And in fairness, unknown to me he wrote that to the trial judge. I didn’t ask him to write a letter, and I did not know until years later that he did write a letter.

Q: So you say in the book that his failure to stand up for you was a wound that wouldn’t heal. That’s no longer the case?

A: No. In fact I altered the wording in the final version of the book. I did say the litmus test was if he thought I had committed crimes, and he said immediately, “I do not think you’ve committed crimes, and I never did.” And I said, “In that case I suggest that we put it all behind us and never speak of it again,” and that’s what’s happened. I see him quite often. I’m having dinner with him tomorrow.

Q: Elton John continued to be a great friend.

A: Magnificent, absolutely magnificent.

Q: David Radler was an associate for more than a quarter century, and then he turns on you and gives evidence against you. Surely you had to know what he was capable of.

A: So one would think, and I reproach myself for not having known. But I must say, in his defence, that for almost all of that time there was never the slightest sign that he was capable of either committing illegalities himself or inventing untruths to level against his associates as part of an activity to try and transfer blame from himself to others in order to get a reduced sentence for himself.

Q: Rupert Murdoch: do you still consider him the greatest media proprietor of all time, given his recent troubles?

A: Yes, but I’ve made it clear that my admiration for his talents as a media proprietor are not on either the standards that he has in presenting news or his own ethics. I was referring to his tremendous boldness in breaking the primitive print unions in Britain, and in breaking the triopoly of the three American television networks, and vertically integrating a film studio with a television network and then being a pioneer in satellite television. But he’s always been a tabloid man, he personally is a complete cynic. I’ve often said that his political philosophy is in that cartoon show that his company produces, The Simpsons. I mean, the people are idiots and all politicians are crooks, and that’s how Rupert sees the world.

Q: Have you changed as a result of all of this? What has changed about Conrad Black?

A: I’m not the best person to judge. It is fair to say very few people would go through as prolonged and arduous an experience as this without changing in some way, and I believe that I probably have. I hope that I have a greater recognition about the numbers and dire conditions of disadvantaged people even in a rich country like the United States. I’m of course much more aware of how imperfectly the justice system functions.

Q: Do you feel remorse about anything you yourself did?

A: Well, I feel remorse about anything I did that helped bring this upon me. I certainly feel no remorse at all about the honesty of what I did, because I didn’t do anything dishonest. I have remorse about any errors that I made that contributed to the vaporization of $2 billion of shareholders’ equity, 85 per cent in the hands of average people throughout the United States and Canada.

Q: Less than a year from now you will be a free man. What is the next act?

A: Well, one of the few positive results of this difficult time is that my career as a writer has flourished. I was fortunate to be in a prison where there was email access so I could file columns for the National Post, the National Review in the United States, and various publications in other countries. I often wrote book reviews, including of your book about William Randolph Hearst, and so I hope to go on with that.

Q: It’s a hard way to make a living.

A: I wasn’t suggesting I had to do it for a living, although I think I could get a fairly respectable income out of it, but in the terms you mean I think I shall return to being an investor. I don’t want to say this in a way that’s inappropriate, but I had some success in that field and I think it can be done in a way that’s completely private, totally unobtrusive, and will furnish quite a decent living.

Q: And do you expect to return to Canada? Do you want to return to Canada?

A: I want to divide my time between Canada and Great Britain, but I certainly would like to come to Canada if only as a temporary resident.

Q: When you were in prison, what was the one material thing you missed most?

A: Probably good food, but I have to emphasize that far above material things was the companionship of my wife. There is no substitute, in the middle of the night, for moving your knee and hitting a cinderblock wall instead of connecting with a person you’re happy to share the bed with. I don’t mean that in a prurient sense, it’s just something that one feels acutely.

Q: How is the food in prison?

A: It’s the lower end of institutional food. There are microwaves in the units and you can buy food from the commissary and put together something a little better in the microwaves, if you want to. What’s offered in the dining hall is certainly enough to keep body and soul together, but it’s not very tasty.

Q: Is that what you spent your stamps on?

A: No, we had—to use Lenin’s phrase—a division of labour: I would do some things for some of the inmates, and in return they would do some things for me, and there were better cooks in that place than I am.

Q: Conrad Black, thanks very much, and good luck with the rest of your journey.

A: Thank you so much, Ken.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.