CHICAGO -- Fallen newspaper magnate Conrad Black faces long but not insurmountable odds in trying to beat federal fraud charges, legal experts say, as he enters the courtroom Wednesday to formally begin his defense.
Until his ouster as head of the Hollinger International media empire, Black controlled a stable of papers from Chicago to London to Jerusalem. The former Canadian citizen, now a member of the British House of Lords, has pledged to appear at his rescheduled arraignment in US District Court after skipping one Nov. 22 to line up a defense team.
Black is certain to declare his ''innocence without qualification" to all eight charges accusing him of involvement in fraudulent schemes the government claims netted company insiders some $84 million. But beyond that, his strategy is a matter of speculation.
Outside attorneys predict a trial won't start for six to 18 months, depending on what Black's defense team does. They note that Black will have to overcome testimony against him from former top lieutenant David Radler, who has pleaded guilty.
''There's no question that despite a small number of losses in high profile cases, the government has won the majority of these trials," said Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor and Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement lawyer.
But citing the case of the fired chief executive of HealthSouth Corp., he added: ''If Richard Scrushy can win an acquittal with five former CEOs lined up against him, and audiotapes, Conrad Black certainly can believe that he can avoid a conviction."
The linchpin of the prosecution's case is expected to be Radler, Black's top deputy and longtime business partner. The former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times -- the last remaining major daily newspaper owned by Hollinger after the sales of The Daily Telegraph of London and The Jerusalem Post -- pleaded guilty Sept. 20 to taking part in a scheme to siphon away $32 million from the Chicago-based company for himself and others.
Government lawyers also can draw on a 500-page report issued last year by a special committee of Hollinger's board, which laid out how Black allegedly conspired with associates to systematically loot the company of more than $400 million -- nearly all of its profits from 1997 to 2003 -- in bogus management and other fees.
''I think the prosecution case is probably going to be pretty strong with a cooperating witness who was a former associate," said Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law the University of Chicago Law School. ''It's going to make the presentation of the evidence pretty clean and simple."