Former media mogul Conrad Black’s trial began with the judge questioning a man who lost money in the WorldCom debacle, a woman whose investments went sour and more than three dozen other prospective jurors.
“We lost every dime,” said the woman, one of the prospective jurors for the trial of the millionaire former press baron accused of siphoning $84m (€63.6m) from the Hollinger International media empire.
Besides the man who lost money in the WorldCom scandal, US District Judge Amy St Eve questioned a woman who said in her pre-trial questionnaire she distrusted people who make millions of dollars.
“No one receives that much money out of the blue for no reason,” she said. Another woman said when asked about her impression of Black: “Whenever I see his picture he seems to be dressed up in a tuxedo.”
After more than seven hours of questioning 48 potential jurors, St Eve dismissed 13 for assorted reasons.
The judge, a former federal prosecutor, said she hopes to have a jury sworn in by the end of today with opening statements on Monday.
She also disclosed that real-estate mogul Donald Trump is on the list of potential government witnesses but gave no hint of what he might be asked if he takes the stand.
Black (aged 62) is charged with racketeering and other offences allegedly committed as chairman of the Hollinger International newspaper holding company.
He was forced out as chief executive in 2003 and ousted as chairman months later amid a storm of shareholder lawsuits and a criminal investigation.
Hollinger once owned The Chicago Sun-Times, the Toronto-based National Post, The Daily Telegraph of London and The Jerusalem Post, as well as hundreds of community newspapers.
The Toronto, London and Jerusalem papers have been sold and the company name has been changed to Sun-Times Media Group.
Black is accused of selling off hundreds of community newspapers in the United States and Canada and pocketing millions of dollars from the buyers in exchange for promises not to compete in the markets where the newspapers circulated.
Prosecutors say the money should have gone to shareholders.
Black also is charged with billing the shareholders for a two-week trip to the island of Bora Bora and most of a $62,000 (€46,900) birthday party for his wife. Three other former Hollinger executives are on trial as well.
A horde of reporters and camera crews gathered at the courthouse before dawn to await Black’s arrival yesterday morning, but he slipped past them unnoticed, apparently while they focused on the arrival of his lawyers.
The Canadian-born Black, author of an acclaimed biography of Franklin Roosevelt, is known for his outspoken, aristocratic manner, which at times turns into what has been described as arrogance and pomposity.
He gave up his Canadian citizenship to become Lord Black of Crossharbour, but now wants that citizenship back.
Black sat calmly at the defence table listening to the questioning.
His wife, conservative writer Barbara Amiel Black, sat in the first row and took notes in a reporter’s notebook.
After the morning session, they had lunch with their lawyers in a witness room adjacent to the courtroom rather than brave a media storm in the downstairs lobby.
Black left last night casually waving with his fingertips to reporters and saying only: “Very good.”
Legal experts say his defence team, headed by Edward Greenspan of Toronto and Edward Genson of Chicago, is guaranteed to be looking for upscale jurors with comfortable salaries and lifestyles.
They found little of that among the prospective jurors.
One man said he lost his pension two years when his company ran into economic trouble.
St Eve repeatedly instructed the prospective jurors that there is nothing illegal about making big money or obtaining better tax treatment.
She asked several prospective jurors if they would hold it against the defendants if they “heard that these defendants received tens of millions of dollars”.
The judge also reminded one woman that she had said on her pre-trial questionnaire that people who receive large amounts of money “may have been paid off for some kind of misconduct”.
A different woman, who identified herself as a mother of three, said there was nothing wrong with making a lot of money.
“If that’s typical for the line of work they’re in, that’s fine,” she said.
Prosecutors estimate the trial could take three to four months and say that, if convicted, Black could face as much as 101 years behind bars, although St Eve will decide the sentence and could give him much less.
One prospective juror was asked if she had read anything about the case in the newspaper and said she had seen an article in The Chicago Sun-Times saying that St Eve “ran a tight ship” in her courtroom.
“A tight ship is a good thing, isn’t it?” St Eve said.