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Mr. Black, about that missing $84 million . . .

Conrad Black

KAI RYSSDAL: If you thought American CEOs of big companies had a lock on scandalous behavior, we direct your attention to the federal courthouse in Chicago, Illinois. Canadian media mogul Conrad Black went on trial for fraud there today. The list of particulars brings back memories of Dennis Kozlowski and Tyco, spending company money as if it were his, and the small matter of 84 missing million dollars. James Langton used to work at a Conrad Black paper, the Daily Telegraph in London. Mr. Langton, welcome.

JAMES LANGTON: Thank you very much.

RYSSDAL: Remind us who Conrad Black is, would you?

LANGTON: Conrad Black is an old-fashioned media baron whose empire at one point stretched, if not quite, all around the world. It certainly included the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London, the Jerusalem Post, and a great raft of newspapers across Canada and in Chicago.

RYSSDAL: And it's those papers in Chicago and all the rest of that publishing empire that's gotten him in to a bit of trouble, isn't it?

LANGTON: It is, yes. Hollinger was the parent company that owned all these papers. And Hollinger was based in Chicago, which is why the trial is in Chicago. Even though perhaps, many people in the U.S. may not be as familiar with him as we are over here, where he was, you know, very much a man of the headlines in every sense.

RYSSDAL: In what way? Describe him for us.

LANGTON: If you said he was larger than life, that would be about right. He's physically quite an imposing man, always extremely well dressed with very expensive suits. Never shy to come forward with his opinions in print or in speech. In some senses, he's a kind of Citizen Kane-like figure and that he really enjoyed the privileges of wealth and power that owning a successful chain of newspapers brought with it.

RYSSDAL: Well, you, actually, used to work for the Daily Telegraph in London, one of his. What was he like as a boss?

LANGTON: I was very well down the food chain. But I have to say that as a proprietor, he was pretty good. Although he had very strong opinions and we knew what he liked and disliked. And nevertheless, he pretty much left his editors to get on with what they wanted to do. He loved newspapers, which is always a good thing — to have a proprietor that actually loves the business of journalism and producing these papers. You know, sometimes, these days, you can get the impression you're working for accountants. But he was a man who really relished owning newspapers and who loved the business of it.

RYSSDAL: Now, he's accused of some fairly, you know — scandalous might be a bit strong but . . . — unusual things: $53,000 for his wife's birthday party, in theory on company money; taking the company jet to Bora Bora for a vacation. How do you think that's going over, you know, amongst his peers?

LANGTON: These are cleary things that the prosecutors will hope, will play very strongly to the jury. They're not actually central to the case against him. But these, if you like, will embroider their case. And I suspect they'll try and create an impression of this man as a kind of Citizen Kane filled with hubris, in an attempt to get a conviction.

RYSSDAL: Care to hazard a guess for us how long this trial might last?

LANGTON: My suspicion is that that will depend to an extent on whether the defense decides to allow Mr. Black to take the stand. Because, he's a man who can go on at great length on subjects. And I should think, given his head, he could probably occupy that entire three months in his defense. But it's three months is what they're saying.

RYSSDAL: Any wagers on what might happen?

LANGTON: I think it's always very difficult with financial cases because it does depend to an extent on whether the jury feel they've kind of got a grip of what was going on. You know, that can be quite complex. And in this case, I think the prosecutors will attempt to keep it very simple and portray this, you know, greedy man and a greedy wife who looted the company. But I believe his defense will be that these payments were authorized by the Hollinger board. And therefore, he were just, you know, paying him for his services.

RYSSDAL: James Langton is a freelance reporter in the United Kingdom. We've reached him just outside London. Mr. Langton, thank you so much for your time.

LANGTON: It's a pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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