The story of Conrad Moffat Black is both compelling and complex. Since being released, Black made his second public appearance and speaking engagement Tuesday evening at the Toronto Reference Library where he touched upon a variety of topics.
In 2007, Conrad Black was convicted in Chicago’s United States District Court and was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison and was also ordered to pay the Hollinger group $6.1 million plus a $250,000 fine. The bestselling author was convicted for diverting funds for personal benefit and obstruction of justice.
Following many appeals and resentencing, Black only served 42 months in a Florida prison and a fine of $125,000. Although he was born in Quebec, Black was granted a one-year temporary resident permit to live in Canada since he renounced his citizenship due to a controversy with then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II. He was released on May 4, picked up by U.S. Immigration officials, escorted to the Miami International Airport and arrived in Toronto the same day.
Black, who was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) in 1990 made his first public appearance Friday at the Empire Club of Canada and delivered a lunchtime speech in a crowded room. In his remarks, he shared his thoughts on the U.S. and Canada and noted “it is Canada’s turn to speak.”
Since his return, Black explained that it has been rather “affecting and touching” because people have been quite welcoming, except for New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, who suggested Black received special treatment for his temporary resident permit – Black’s criminal record would not dispel him from receiving long-term residency status. He did note he will apply for Canadian citizenship in 2013 or 2014.
Black’s entire ordeal with the United States, Canadian and British governments has been multifaceted. In a one-hour discussion Tuesday evening at the Toronto Reference Library, Black sat down with TVO’s Allan Gregg and answered questions regarding his time in prison, his opinions on the three countries and what he has learned over time.
He also signed his latest book “A Matter of Principle,” a book that describes his conviction, the trial, imprisonment and appeals process. Black also talks about his feelings toward the prosecutors, media and the people who portrayed him in a negative light.
The former newspaper publisher was asked why he was participating in such a discussion in front of a live crowd. Black responded that he has always enjoyed Gregg’s work and his discussions with the TVO host and also that he has a “duty to sell books.”
“I’m returning to this country as a virtual dug of peace with a streaking mistletoe,” stated Black. “I just don’t believe in unilateral verbal disarmament.”
“I’m a relatively well-publicized person for 35 years and at the outset of that I thought – and I now I think it was a mistake in view both technically and substantively – since most people thought business was dull and businessmen were dullards, there was some useful purpose to be served to try and liven things up a bit, which is essentially I was trying to do,” explained Black.
“I wasn’t trying to become a cult of personality or become synonymous with anything particular. I was just trying to say commerce is important.”
Black said he has not been controversial since his return to Canada. He noted, though, that he did reply to Mulcair’s comment. When the CBCran a piece showing Black’s accounts of his return were factually correct and there was no special privilege from the federal government, a journalist sought comment from Black to “rub Mulcair’s nose in it,” but the National Post columnist declined to do so and preferred to “let bygones be bygones.” If it was 35 years ago, according to Black, it would have been a different story.
His average day consists of writing, dealing with legal issues and handling his financial matters.
During his 42 months in prison, which was initially 78 months, Black wasn’t completely miserable, but it didn’t change him at all.
“I don’t feel I have changed that much, but certainly I saw some things I thought I had no particular ambition to see especially not under those circumstances, which were quite interesting and I do have the views that life is a privilege and we have to try and make the most of whatever portion we have of it at anytime,” explained Black.
“It was actually quite interesting and as I used to say to some of my fellow residents, ‘This is awful of course, but we actually live better than 80 percent of the world and it isn’t that bad’.” He added that he thinks 20 percent of the low security of the U.S. federal system would “cling to the furniture” if the fences were torn down.
A lot of his inmates would watch television and play cards all day. If they left prison they would be “derelicts.” Black taught a lot of his fellow men how to read and write. He actually created a following for his books.
“If you believe in any plausible definition of God, it isn’t difficult to convince yourself that in general there is some sort of thought given to how things unfold and things unfold according to something in the first place makes sense to a celestial authority and in the second place it’s difficult for us to judge and it’s possible in that scenario to develop a partial comfort level.
“In the first place, it’s not as dark as it appears. In the second place, life goes on; my health was good, the people around me didn’t bother me ... and it was for a finite time and I have never wavered that it is completely respectable and creditable cause for a person on an unjustly charge to defend himself and that’s what I was doing.”
While everything was going on, Black attempted to convince himself in a thoughtful way – “not in a brainwashing way” – that it was a positive experience and could be a “test” on his “capacities for certain types of annoyance.”
When asked if it was hard on his relationship, Black said it wasn’t hard on his marriage. “It was no day at the beach for me, but it was difficult for her. She knew the charges were false and our relationship was so strong I don’t think it was strained.”
U.S. and Canadian Justice Systems
Black stood by his repeated comments that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, but it is declining. He stated the U.S. has become a “terribly corrupt country” and is a “rather delusional place.” He also did have intense criticism of the “wild and woolly” U.S. justice system and its lawyers, in which he identified them as “rapacious.”
“Of course you have to have a society of laws, but when you have a federal legislature and 50 state legislatures and all of the municipalities churning out laws and regulations all the time creating more work for this festering steroid bloated cartel of lawyers, it’s just insane.”
Furthermore, he had strong words for Richard Posner, conservative incumbent Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who, according to Black, is the most “colossal megalomaniac in American history.”
Black took at a jab at Posner’s “other brainwaves,” such as a liberalized free market approach to adoption and his theory that he was overlooked for the nomination of the Supreme Court because he supported the legalization of marijuana.
He later explained that non-violent Americans are only sent to prison because it has been the custom for so long and it has never been questioned.
When asked by an audience member for his thoughts on Canada’s Omnibus Crime Bill C-10, which was passed in March and makes fundamental changes to the criminal justice system, Black said it would be “inappropriate to be demonstrative to give opinion of gratuitous severity.” This led to laughter and applause.
Black, who has written biographies on Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, was asked what U.S. president he would prefer to have a conversation with. He responded with Abraham Lincoln.
Black would converse with Lincoln because he was “such an astoundingly great man.” Also, for the fact that he was never angry with the state of the U.S. during his time, he never lost his sense of humor but wasn’t silly and he was never morose.
“He, I think along with Cardinal Newman, was the greatest non-fiction wordsmith of the 19th century. He was a great man.”