Fallen Canadian-born businessman Conrad Black says cleaning toilets, getting body-cavity searches and forming alliances with Mafia types in a Florida prison made him a humbler and more sensitive man, but he also tells Vanity Fair he's innocent of fraud and blames onetime media rival Rupert Murdoch in part for his legal troubles.
"The myth, in all the Canadian papers, was that I would not hold up in prison, that I would be physically and sexually abused …. I realized, well, it would be a little tedious, but it wouldn’t be difficult to endure," Black says in interview intercepts from the article in Vanity Fair, which is set for full release next month.
He served 29 months in the Coleman federal prison in Florida before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some of his initial convictions, citing a misuse of the "honest services" provision of the U.S. fraud statute. He'll return to prison early in September to start serving up to 13 months for fraud and obstruction of justice, after a Chicago court agreed to accept the 29 months he has already served as part of his new sentence of 42 months.
In the wide-ranging Vanity Fair interview for the article "The Convictions of Conrad Black," the Montreal native, who renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to get a seat in Britain's House of Lords, holds little back. The former Hollinger International executive is featured on the cover in a photo by Annie Leibovitz, staring sheepishly and wearing a seafoam green long-sleeved shirt while sitting with his wife, journalist Barbara Amiel, who is grasping his arm and relaxing her head on his shoulder.
"I’m not embarrassed in the least bit I was in prison — not the slightest," he says. "There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You can’t talk to Martha Stewart about it, or Alfred Taubman. They didn’t see it as I did, as a nightmarish change in careers. I see it as a temporary vocation.
"What I’ve been trying to do the last eight years [while fighting the charges against him] is to deduce, at a very fundamental level, what is the message of all this? I don’t doubt that I am a humbler, more sensitive person now that I have experienced conditions with which I’d had little experience. I’ve worked hard to find something meaningful."
'"I quickly developed alliances with the Mafia people, then the Cubans. I was friendly with the ‘good ol’ boys’ and the African-Americans. They all understood I had fought the system, and I do believe I earned their respect for that.'" —Conrad Black
Black recalled how he endured body-cavity inspections like the rest of his fellow inmates — "I was slightly mystified at the extent of official curiosity about that generally unremitting aperture" — and described how he became a sideshow while cleaning prison shower stalls, a form of punishment at the prison.
"It wasn’t terribly exciting work," he says. "You just put soap on the wall and focus a hose on it. There was a social component to it, however. All of these guards from all over coming into the shower to watch this millionaire clean the shower. I said, 'Captain, I get the sense you are watching the Super Bowl here, that this is a spectator sport. I assure you, this is nothing so entertaining.'"
But he also saw himself as a comrade of sorts to others in incarceration — including members of the underworld, according to Vanity Fair.
"I quickly developed alliances with the Mafia people, then the Cubans. I was friendly with the ‘good ol’ boys’ and the African-Americans. They all understood I had fought the system, and I do believe I earned their respect for that." He also recalled his first meeting with a member of the Genovese crime family, saying he was told: "'No one will bother you here. If you catch a cold, we will find out who you got it from. You know, we have much in common.… We are industrialists."
Calls fraud charges 'absurd'
Black once controlled Hollinger International, and through its affiliates, the company published major newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post and National Post based in Toronto, as well as hundreds of community newspapers in North America. In Vanity Fair, Black, who turned 67 this month, maintains his innocence and takes shots at Australian media competitor Rupert Murdoch, who has been at the centre of a phone-hacking scandal involving News of the World and other parts of his empire in recent months.
"The myth is that the price war put so much pressure on our profits that I was forced to steal money to maintain my opulent lifestyle," Black says in Vanity Fair. "It’s part of the whole News Corp. mythmaking apparatus. It was Rupert, you know. He originated that one. He certainly parroted it. Rupert always says reasonably nice things about me, but then he throws in something like that for effect. I don’t really blame Rupert. He’s not a non-friend. Rupert is just Darwinian.
"Frankly, these charges are absurd," Black says of the fraud and obstruction-of-justice charges. "If I wanted to take documents out of my offices, what are the chances I would have lugged them out under the glare of security cameras I myself installed? I mean, I’d have to be mad. That’s the only thing they haven’t accused me of. The whole thing is absolutely farcical, but here we are. After eight years … here we are."
Amiel, who stood by her husband's side throughout his legal battles, says in the interview that she doesn’t believe prison has changed him. "When it comes to petty irritations, the chief offender has been this notion that prison has ‘changed’ Conrad," she says. "All that changed was that people who barely knew him or did not know him at all changed their views of him."
As for his future business aspirations, Black says he plans to live off what remains of his wealth — "I can live on $80 million. At least I think I can" — and that he will at all costs avoid publicly held companies. "The regulators, the minority shareholders, all that crap. Oh, I can’t stand it."
Vanity Fair and the full interview with Black will be on newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on Thursday, and available nationally and on iPad on Sept. 6 — the same day Black is to report to prison to resume serving his sentence.