Fortune editor at large
December 7 2007: 12:04 PM EST
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Conrad Black's fan club

He may have been convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice, but his friends tell the court he's a really nice guy.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large

(Fortune) -- Conrad Black is not a bad guy if you really get to know him, claims a lengthy pre-sentencing submission by attorneys representing Black in his corporate fraud case.

Lord Black of Crossharbour, as Black is known in England where he once commanded a global newspaper empire, is battling against government prosecutors in Illinois who want to put him behind bars for life after his conviction on three counts of financial fraud and one of obstruction of justice. During Black's 15-week trial in Chicago earlier this year, Black did not testify on his own behalf and his lawyers called only a handful of defense witnesses, a tactic that usually signifies that they believed their client stood a good chance of being exonerated.

With the verdict against him, Black's pre-sentencing submission offers a much broader, kinder - and frankly more epic - picture of the former press tycoon. Black and three former colleagues who were also found guilty in the case are separately appealing the verdicts against them, but in the meantime all are scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Amy St. Eve on December 10 in Chicago. Prosecutors have sought as much as 30 years in prison for Black, while his lawyers argued that the crimes he was found guilty of merit a much shorter penalty - not more than 29 months.

In the submission, Black is portrayed as "a person with a deep reservoir of kindness and generosity" who personally and financially looked after his ailing brother, former editors of his newspapers, and domestic help alike when they faced health problems. Beyond that, the submission goes on at length to showcase his accomplishments as a biographer and man of letters, not to mention a staunch - and often unpopular - public support of the country whose justice system he has now run afoul.

In support of a lenient sentence, Black has received letters from personal friends, family members, former editors of London's Telegraph newspaper when he owned it and a fellow business leader from Canada - Black's native country - who says Black has been punished enough. His "suffering, his financial loss and his humiliation are already recognized by everyone in the business and financial communities as a steep price already paid," writes Gerald Schwartz, the chairman of Onex Corporation (Charts), a conglomerate.

Separately, the submission notes that Black, whose career and relationship with his second wife Barbara Amiel have attracted plenty of scrutiny, "has watched his family suffer untold agonies at the hands of a savage and reckless press." According to his wife's letter to the court, Black "always sees the best in events and people. For Conrad, the glass is always half full no matter what life dishes out for him."

Legal observers have suggested that Black could face a stiff sentence from Judge St. Eve because he has not shown contrition, was reported to have called the prosecutors "Nazis" to a journalist outside the courtroom and repeatedly proclaimed the case against him to be nonsense. Black even portrayed his conviction as a victory because he was found guilty of only four of thirteen charges against him, and has repeatedly vowed to beat the rest of the charges on appeal. "Mr. Black's positive pronouncements regarding the likely outcome of the trial pre-verdict as well as his statements of perseverance in the post verdict phase are born of the same spirit," the submission said.

Through tapes and quotations from private letters he wrote, Federal prosecutors created a portrait of Black in the case that was arrogant, dismissive and combative - an image that the filing attempts to dispel. (For example, in one email he called shareholders who were questioning his compensation "self-righteous hypocrites and ingrates." In another well-worn passage, Black wrote in a 2002 email that while he had wondered whether the company could afford his Gulfstream jet, "I'm not prepared to re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of nobility.") The submission concedes that Black "spoke and wrote in an educated and somewhat elaborate manner."

Also, his lawyers contend, the fancy trappings of Black's tycoon life that were much discussed at the trial - although not directly linked to any of the charges he was convicted on - should not be taken into account at sentencing. The media, the submission contends, "wasted no time weaving information about Mr. Black's possessions into an elaborate and page turning fiction of a money hungry elitist whose highest ambition was social advancement in the upper echelons of New York and London society."

Not our guy, the submission concludes: "As Conrad Black stands before the court for sentencing, he is neither the embodiment of the greatest act of charity he has every accomplished nor the personification of the worst mistake. He is a husband, father, friend, patron, benefactor and mentor. He is a combination of all of his thoughts words and actions as expressed through 63 years of life. That legacy has touched many individual lives and has made positive contributions on a global scale."

The prosecution, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois, will - as it has at every other stage of the case - no doubt present Black in a much darker light at sentencing.  To top of page

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