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Media baron Conrad Black dealt with the court of public opinion in grand, arrogant style. He assumed that he could brush off his criminal indictment the same way. Instead, with his conviction on four felony counts, he became the latest high-profile defendant to discover too late that, in a court of law, delusions of grandeur cannot overcome acts of dishonesty. Black � Lord Black, since he used his wealth to renounce his Canadian citizenship and become part of Britain’s House of Lords � is no stranger to playing fast and loose with the line between dishonesty and financial gain. According to the New York Times, at only 14 he was expelled from a Toronto private school for stealing copies of upcoming exams and selling them to other students. In the early 1980s, he signed a consent decree with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in which he did not admit to any wrongdoing, but promised not to violate securities laws in the future. A former SEC chairman described Black’s management of his media empire as “corporate kleptocracy.” In this case, Black and three other officials of his former media holding company, Hollinger International, were indicted on several different fraudulent schemes. After a lengthy deliberation, the jury was unable to find proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to some of the schemes, but it convicted all four men on several felony fraud charges. More important, though, the jury also found Black guilty of obstruction of justice. Black claimed that he was above the nitty-gritty details of the schemes, that this was all the result of some overzealous prosecutor’s imagination. And yet, in the middle of the criminal investigation, the great lord himself sneaked presumably incriminating documents out the back door of his Toronto headquarters. Unfortunately for Black, a garage security camera caught the sordid scene on tape. The jury watched with rapt attention as the TV screen showed the great man passing box after box of company documents to his chauffeur to stash in the limo. The cover-up damned him When a jury confronts a defendant’s dishonesty, all the defense’s grand theories and broader issues become just background noise. If someone is lying or covering up, juries naturally believe that he or she must have done something worth hiding. The logic is compelling and inescapable. The rest, in the words of the Bard, is just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Just ask Martha Stewart, convicted of obstruction of justice. Or, more recently, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. Libby’s case was facially different from Black’s and yet, fundamentally, strikingly the same. Libby’s defense talked about him as a “scapegoat,” a victim of an overzealous prosecution, a pawn in a much grander game played out in the White House. But ultimately the jury’s focus was not on the big issues: It was on a successful, powerful man who knowingly chose to lie and obstruct justice. No one put a gun to Libby’s head and made him do it. No matter how complex and unfathomable the broader issues may be, lying and obstruction of justice are crimes juries understand � and get angry about. The rest becomes just noise. So it was with Conrad Black. He could rail at the prosecutors, at his partner of 30 years who pleaded guilty and testified against him and at all those who sought to bring him down. But none of them were there in the garage when he tried to get rid of the evidence. That was clearly and unmistakably his doing. It had probably been a long time since Black, who was worth hundreds of millions and jet-setted between luxurious homes around the world, hauled his own boxes. Of all the images the world has of Black, that security camera image of him hauling big boxes and passing them to his chauffeur is the one he couldn’t shake. And it is the one that will send him to jail. Conrad Black, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby: The list of celebrity crooks goes on. All of them are now household names whose stories raise interesting issues about our society, our economy and our politics. In high-profile cases, the media feed this distortion. The grand schemes and cross-allegations are what interest them, not the grimy details of lies and deception. But it is essential to understand and remember that it was not the complex issues that brought them down: It was simple dishonesty. A lie is a lie, a cover-up is a cover-up, no matter how rich and powerful the perpetrator. At least, that is the way it ought to be. For Black, that is the way it is. Dan Small is a trial partner in the Miami office of Duane Morris. A former federal prosecutor, he wrote the American Bar Association’s books Preparing Witnesses (2d edition 2004) and Going To Trial (2d edition 1999). He presents CLE programs around the country on these subjects, and is a frequent media commentator.

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