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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 March 2007, 14:57 GMT
The fall of Conrad Black
By Adam Harcourt-Webster
BBC Money Programme

The trial of Conrad Black - press baron, British peer, socialite and a man with a taste for the billionaire lifestyle - is due to start in Chicago. Among the charges he faces are fraud and racketeering.

Lord Black and press photographers
Lord Black faces strict bail conditions

Conrad Black is one of Britain's best known businessmen, but if found guilty, he could spend the rest of his life in a US jail.

In a Money Programme special, Jeff Randall, who's followed the career of the former owner of the Daily Telegraph for 20 years and even worked for him, uncovers an extraordinary story of ambition and downfall.

Lord Black is a flamboyant and controversial media mogul.

Until recently he ran Hollinger International, a newspaper empire that stretched from his native Canada half way around the world, with hundreds of titles including the prestigious UK newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

He was a larger than life character, fabulously rich, with a ruthless business mind, and a beautiful and glamorous wife, the Canadian journalist Barbara Amiel.

Amongst the rich, powerful and famous

Lord Black
1944: Born Montreal, Canada on 25 August
1967: Buys his first Canadian newspaper, the Knowlton Advertiser for $500
1985: buys the UK's Daily Telegraph
1992: marries his second wife, Canadian journalist Barbara Amiel
2001: Conrad Black ennobled as Lord Black of Crossharbour
2003: attacked by shareholders Black resigns as Hollinger International chief executive
2005: indicted for fraud and racketeering in the Chicago Federal Court
2007: Conrad Black's criminal trial to start in Chicago on 14 March

But now Lord Black has lost control of Hollinger International, accused by Hollinger's shareholders of siphoning off millions of dollars of their money in unauthorised payments to himself.

Jeff Randall talks to Lord Black's friends, former employees and accusers.

One tells of a man with presence and magnetism. "When he enters a room, he carries his own climate" says the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Martin Newland. "And the thing you always saw at these events were those trying to force themselves up his fundament."

Lord Black relished the company of the rich, powerful and famous.

"I loved Conrad's parties" says publisher and broadcaster Andrew Neil. "There was Liz Hurley in one corner, Prince Andrew in the other, two cabinet ministers and Mrs Thatcher. A lot of young and beautiful women."

With homes in New York, Toronto, Florida and London, the Blacks appeared to enjoy all the trappings that came with their success.

Investigating the books

Conrad Black's accusers see things rather differently.

Criminal charges
15 charges of fraud
one of obstruction of justice
one of racketeering

Federal prosecutors allege Lord Black
Fraudulently received non-compete fees from the sale of Hollinger International assets
Deprived the company of his honest services
Repeatedly benefited himself at the expense of the company and its public shareholders through the abuse of company perks

Other executives on trial
John Boultbee - former chief financial officer
Peter Atkinson - former general counsel
Mark Kipnis - former corporate counsel and secretary

Hollinger International's American shareholders took note of Conrad and Barbara's extravagant lifestyle, and began to wonder why it was that the couple seemed to be living so well while the company was performing so poorly.

In 2003 one of these shareholders, Herbert Denton of Providence Capital, decided to take a look at Hollinger International's books.

Mr Denton found that the company was making money, but that much of it, 95% of the company's entire net income, appeared to be going to a small group of senior managers.

It appeared to him that Lord Black was acting as if he owned the company. "He described himself as the proprietor, meaning the owner" says Mr Denton.

"He wasn't, he was a part owner, it was our company, meaning Lord Black and ourselves, not his company. He didn't want to make that distinction," says Mr Denton.

'The worst case I've seen'

Lord Black signing a book
Lord Black allegedly used company money to fund research for his Roosevelt biography

Hollinger International's shareholders wanted their money back, so they called in the lawyers.

New York corporate attorney Jay Eisenhofer, of the law firm Grant & Eisenhofer, believes Conrad Black is in deep trouble.

"It's one of the worst, if not the worst case I've seen" he says.

Mr Eisenhofer is launching a massive civil lawsuit on behalf of the shareholders.

"The wrongdoing was extensive. It was pervasive," says Mr Eisenhofer. "If you were on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst example, I think you'd find Conrad Black is probably somewhere around 50."

At shareholders' expense?

If he's finally found guilty, how was he allowed to get away with it for so long?

Lord Black now stands accused, both in the civil and criminal cases, of looting Hollinger International, the then parent company of the Daily Telegraph.

He was able to do so, claim the lawyers, because he was the public company's controlling shareholder.

The lawsuits claim he took tens of millions of US dollars through abuse of company perks, acquiring company assets at knock-down prices, and by taking unauthorised fees for himself which should have gone to the company he controlled.

Lord Black enriched himself, it is alleged, at other shareholders' expense.

Going after Lord Black's famous friends

US federal prosecutors Edward Siskel, Julie Ruder, Jeffrey Cramer and Eric Sussman
The US prosecutors want to see Lord Black behind bars

Mr Eisenhofer is also suing some of Hollinger's non-executive board members - celebrities like former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, top diplomat and government official Richard Perle and Lord Black's wife, Barbara Amiel.

He says they failed to stop Lord Black stripping the company.

"I don't think they really had any idea of what was going on," says Mr Eisenhofer, "but they should have."

"It's nice to go to the Board meetings, it's nice to cash the cheque. It's nice to get the royal treatment. But it comes with some responsibilities, and when you don't exercise those responsibilities, your shareholders are now going to hold you accountable," says Mr Eisenhofer.

The price of excess

Conrad Black faces the full weight of a US justice system that appears determined to severely punish those found guilty of corporate corruption.

Lord Black is defiant, and insists the accusations against him are a fraud themselves.

In this Money Programme, Jeff Randall offers his own verdict: "Whether he wins or loses in that Chicago courtroom, he's already learned the hard way that the price of excess is a high one."

Money Programme special - The fall of Conrad Black, on Tuesday 13 March, at 2200 UK time on BBC Two

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