Minnie Mouse, ‘honest services’ feature in former media mogul Conrad Black’s appeal

By Michael Tarm, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Minnie Mouse metaphor gets laugh in Black’s appeal

CHICAGO — An attorney for Conrad Black invoked a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Disney character Minnie Mouse in asking appellate judges on Wednesday to toss the former media mogul’s 2007 conviction and keep him out of prison for good.

The sometimes lively hearing at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was the latest chapter in the 66-year-old’s long-running legal saga, which includes earlier failed attempts to overturn his conviction for defrauding Hollinger International Inc. investors.

But a Supreme Court decision in June that sharply curtailed so-called “honest services” laws used to help convict the Canadian-born Black and other public figures over the years may offer his best chance of winning his freedom.

Addressing a three-judge panel in a crowded Chicago courtroom, defense attorney Miguel Estrada said jurors gave too much weight to now-defunct honest services provisions in convicting Black of fraud and obstructing justice.

“It’s our submission that none of the fraud or obstruction of justice charges can survive,” Estrada said, standing at a podium just feet from the judges.

Prosecutor Edmond Chang disagreed.

While conceding the government broached honest services — that Black deprived the company of his faithful services as a corporate officer — during the trial, Chang said a simpler, undisputed legal notion underpinned arguments to jurors: that Black stole money.

After serving two years of a 6 1/2-year sentence, Black was recently freed from a Florida federal prison on a $2 million bond pending a decision on his appeal. He was not at Wednesday’s hearing.

Black, whose old media empire once included the Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Telegraph of London and community papers in the U.S. and Canada, isn’t alone in challenging convictions based on honest-services laws. Other public figures doing the same include Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of disgraced energy giant Enron Corp. and imprisoned former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

A skeptical sounding Judge Richard Posner frequently interrupted Black’s attorney on Wednesday, at one point singling out a charge involving Black and three others taking $600,000 from the company.

“That’s old-fashion theft,” Posner said.

“No, it’s not,” Estrada shot back.

An exasperated Estrada argued that jurors could have convicted, not on grounds that taking the $600,000 were theft, but because the money transfer didn’t appear to be authorized.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” the judge said, interrupting again.

The two also clashed on Black’s obstruction of justice conviction, which resulted after he removed boxes of documents from his office when already under scrutiny of investigators.

In arguing Black didn’t obstruct anything because there wasn’t a crime to obstruct, Estrada employed an unlikely metaphor of a false accusation that he had an affair with Minnie Mouse.

“If I (then) burn my Disney comics, I can’t be convicted for trying to cover up a relationship with Minnie Mouse,” he told the judges.

“On the contrary,” Judge Posner quickly responded, drawing laughter from the crowded court. “You burned them because you were going to be prosecuted for Minnie Mouse.”

While high-court justices limited the scope of the honest services law, it wasn’t clear in the aftermath of the court’s ruling where Black’s case stood. That’s left it to the 7th Circuit to determine whether to overturn Black’s conviction in whole or in part.

Appellate judges often play devil’s advocate, so Posner’s often biting comments don’t necessarily mean he’ll side against Black. A ruling is not expected for at least several weeks.

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