Lord Black of Crossharbour - the former proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, business titan and peer of the realm - plundered his media empire of $60m ([pound]31m) in a theft no more complex than a bank robbery or a burglary, according to a blistering opening argument by prosecutors.
As the curtain went up on the Trial of Conrad Black, his accusers sought to bring dozens of financial deals and dodgy expenses down to a single point: Hollinger International was not Lord Black's personal piggy bank, Hollinger's money was not his money.
"You are sitting in a room," the prosecutor, Jeffrey Cramer, told the jury, "with four men who stole $60m [[pound]31m], four men who betrayed the trust of thousands of public shareholders, four men who decided among themselves that their six and seven-figure salaries were not enough.
"Bank robbers wear masks and use guns, a burglar wears dark clothing and uses a crowbar. These four men used lawyers and accountants, dressed in ties and wore suits."
Lord Black is on trial with three of his closest former lieutenants, accused of 14 counts of mail, wire and tax fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Lord Black owned barely a third of his US-quoted holding company Hollinger International, but allegedly he dipped into its coffers to pay for lavish personal holidays and diverted millions of dollars in bogus "non-competition" payments that should rightly have gone to Hollinger's shareholders, the court heard. "These are the most sophisticated businessmen you will ever lay eyes on," Mr Cramer said. "They knew this wasn't their money."
But the defence said that Lord Black was the victim, not the perpetrator, of a massive theft. He was unfairly, outrageously, robbed of a media empire that was once the third largest in the English-speaking world, and he will fight tooth and nail to clear his name. "He knows exactly what he did," said Edward Genson, the rotund, folksy attorney who has defended mobsters and unloved politicians in a long career that has made him a Chicago legend. "What he does not accept - what he cannot accept, because it is not true - is that he is a criminal. I will tell you on his behalf that he is outraged, and the evidence presented over the next few months will justify that outrage."
Mr Cramer, who has cut his teeth fighting corruption in Chicago, often scowled and shouted directly at Lord Black as he set out some of the most damaging allegations against him, setting up what could be a vitriolic courtroom battle between the two men. The peer sat, with his arms crossed, impassive for more than an hour as Mr Cramer laid out a string of complex and not-so-complex ways that he had allegedly enriched himself at the expense of minority shareholders in Hollinger. In particular, Mr Cramer revealed details of a $500,000 holiday to the exclusive South Pacific getaway of Bora Bora. On return, Lord Black told US immigration officials the trip had been a personal vacation, but he billed half to Hollinger.
Prosecutors will also be scrutinising what they say was a favourable deal given to Lord Black when Hollinger International sold him the company's apartment on Manhattan's super-exclusive Park Avenue. While another apartment in the building had almost doubled in value over the previous two years, Hollinger sold Black the property for the same $3m price tag it had paid two years before. "Shareholders' pockets just got picked for a couple of million dollars," Mr Cramer said. The defence said Black had previously invested his own money in refurbishing the property. The central prosecution case rests on the details of a string of "non- competition" clauses written into Hollinger's deals to sell several newspaper chains between 1998 and 2000, where Lord Black and his companies were paid not to start rival newspapers. None of the buyers demanded such clauses, the prosecution says, but Lord Black told Hollinger's directors that they were vital to secure the sale. …