Jonathan Kay on Conrad Black

His crimes do not define him

Conrad Black - persona non grata

A Chicago jury has found Conrad Black guilty on three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. The world-renowned media magnate and author is now liable to spend up to 35 years in prison.
To many of his longstanding critics in the media and elsewhere, Friday's verdict will be taken as proof that the man is a quintessential symbol of corporate criminality. Such a simplistic conclusion would do a disservice to an accomplished businessman and intellectual.
Since the fall of Enron in late 2001, the corporate kleptocrat has gained prominence as a stock villain in our popular culture. Billion-dollar corporate scandals have become so numbingly numerous - Tyco, WorldCom, Healthsouth, Qwest, Computer Associates and Adelphia being only the most prominent - that convicted corporate executives now are routinely lumped together as if their misdeeds were identical. But of course, they are not.
While Lord Black has been found guilty of four crimes, he does not deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as, say, WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, Enron's Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay, Adelphia's John Rigas, and HealthSouth's Richard Scrushy. These are criminal conspirators who created fraudulent billion-dollar empires, and who impoverished thousands of their ordinary unsuspecting shareholders and employees when the fraud was uncovered. Lord Black did no such thing. Whatever the findings relating to the mail-fraud and obstruction-of-justice charges against him, he did not build imaginary corporate castles in the sky. As many others have noted, he ran a company that was sound and profitable: The corporate do-gooders who came after the man spent far more of the company's money pursuing him than he was ever accused of misappropriating.
All this said, Lord Black has had his day in court. And barring successful appeal, he will be made to pay the price for his crimes. But whatever the man's current travails, it is important that Canadians put his lasting legacy in context. Lord Black delivered to this country a stronger, more vibrant and diverse media market - the National Post being a case a point. With his conviction, the man's critics will have their day. But they should not be permitted to define his place in this country's history.

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