Prosecutor accuses Black of 'stealing, plain and simple'

A prosecutor accused Conrad Black and three former Hollinger executives Monday of stealing $60 million US and creating a bogus paper trail to hide the theft.

A prosecutor accused former media mogul Conrad Black and three former Hollinger International newspaper executives Monday of systematically stealing $60 million US from the company and creating an elaborate but bogus paper trail to hide the theft from shareholders.

"It was stealing, plain and simple," assistant U.S. attorney Julie Ruder said as closing arguments got under way at the Canadian-born British lord's three-month racketeering and fraud trial. She told jurors that it "will be your job to expose this cover story for the lie that it is."

"We're not here because somebody made a mistake; we're not here because somebody forgot to dot the i's or cross the t's," Ruder said as Black looked on without any sign of emotion. The four defendants "decided on their own to take a slice of the company's profits," she said.

As closing arguments began, one juror was missing. It was not clear why, and lawyers declined to discuss the absence. U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve held a long conference with the attorneys before court got under way Monday.

Black, 62, and three other former executives of the Hollinger International Inc. newspaper empire are accused of pocketing $60 million US that should have gone to the shareholders, largely through non-compete payments in the sale of hundreds of Hollinger-owned U.S. and Canadian community newspapers.

Millions of dollars were paid in exchange for promises that Hollinger would not compete with the new owners. "Non-compete" payments are common in the industry but prosecutors say the money belonged to shareholders.

Hollinger did get the bulk of the money, but large amounts went to Black, other executives and two Canadian companies Black owned.

Also on trial are former Hollinger vice-presidents Jack Boultbee and Peter Atkinson and former corporate counsel Mark Kipnis. Like Black, Boultbee and Atkinson are Canadians, while Kipnis is a Chicago lawyer.

Black, Boultbee and Atkinson shared the non-compete payments, which are tax-free in Canada. Kipnis is accused of helping to arrange the deals.

Black and his co-defendants deny they did anything illegal.

St. Eve has set all week for closing arguments. Jury deliberations are due to get under way next week.

Ruder paced in front of the jury box, sometimes pointing to a large video screen where prosecutors projected black-and-white photos of the witnesses when she mentioned them. Also projected on the screen in green letters were specific quotes from testimony given by the witnesses.

Ruder accused Black and his co-defendants of deceiving Hollinger International's board of directors, its lawyers and its accountants by claiming that the buyers insisted that individual executives sign non-compete payments.

While the agreements were signed by the buyers, several buyers testified that they didn't care one way or the other whether Black and his fellow executives made pledges not to compete. It was the Hollinger executives who asked for the agreements and the payments, they said.

'They chose to lie'

The defendants concealed that fact, Ruder said.

"They chose not to tell the truth about why the payments were being made," she said. "They chose to lie."

Ruder scoffed at the claim by Black's Canadian lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, that the audit committee of Hollinger International's board of directors approved the non-compete payments at a Sept. 11, 2000, meeting.

Greenspan claimed the audit committee first approved them and then, when the payments came in for criticism from shareholders, "conveniently forgot."

"There is nothing, no evidence, nothing at all to suggest Mr. Greenspan's allegation," Ruder said, her voice rising to a shout.

The committee chairman, former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, testified he didn't remember what happened at the meeting. He also said he didn't know about the payments because he "skimmed" reports referring to them.

"They did fail the shareholders," Ruder said. "They should have read these things, word for word, paragraph for paragraph.

"But the biggest failure of Governor Thompson and the other members of the committee is that they trusted these guys too much," Ruder said, nodding to the defendants.