The Dennis Kozlowski of Corporate Media

The excesses of British media magnate Conrad Black rival the spending habits of the former Tyco chief.
Sometimes you have to take the devil's money to do the Lord's work.

And sometimes the Lord just takes the money himself -- and spends it on things like ... well, like Napoleon's chair, for instance. And a vintage Rolls Royce, and an eleven-bedroom townhouse near London's Kensington Palace.

Especially, it seems, when the Lord in question is a press lord -- newspaper magnate Conrad Black, a.k.a. Lord Black of Crossharbour, whose alleged financial shenanigans led to his recent hasty departure as the CEO of Hollinger International.

If you haven't heard of Hollinger, you must have heard of some of its holdings, which include such brand-name newspapers as the UK's Daily Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Closer to home, Hollinger also owns a piece of the struggling daily, the New York Sun, where Lord Black represents its interests as a member of the board of directors.

Along with his questionable finances, Black is notable because of his powerful associates. When building his empire, he often used his business as a vehicle to further his political and social ambitions. Hollinger board members include the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger and influential defense maven Richard Perle

But has His Lordship been representing the interests of Hollinger shareholders -- or his own?

The question arose in the wake of recent revelations, including the disclosure by a Hollinger board committee that Black and other top officials received unauthorized payments totaling more than $32 million.

These came on top of $180 million in fees the company paid Black and other executives in recent years. Nice work, if you can get it.

His Lordship and his second-in-command, David Radler, each agreed to return more than seven million dollars in payments related to said 'unauthorized payments.' Nevertheless, the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun to investigate.

Meanwhile, a media feeding frenzy has begun in the bloody waters surrounding Black. The key question at hand: Who's paying the price for the Lord's luxuries? With two jets, three luxury homes, and no doubt millions of partridges stashed in pear trees on both sides of the Atlantic, that price appears astronomical.

Questions remain about the recent three million dollar refurbishment of Black's leased Gulfstream IV, and his 231,000 square foot, nine (and a half!) bathroom Palm Beach mansion. But we do know, thanks to the scores of lawyers and accountants already examining Hollinger's mysterious books -- as well as reporters from outlets including the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and Chicago Magazine -- that Hollinger no longer pays Black's monthly tab at Le Cirque 2000. Nor its previous portion of the cost of maintaining Black's baronial Park Avenue apartment -- in excess of 100,000 dollars last year. Nor Black's butler, chauffeur and maid at his London townhouse. Nor ... well, let's not pile on!

One must note in fairness that Black and his representatives deny everything. One even said with a straight face "He welcomes a thorough review, is cooperating fully with the process, and is confident that when all the facts are disclosed that it will be clear he acted properly." And the Lord implored John Cassidy of the New Yorker "to contemplate the possibility that those who benefit from the presumption of innocence may, in fact, be innocent."

Fair enough. But then, O.J. is still assiduously searching for the real killer.

Kidding aside, financial improprieties "upstairs" in the media world inevitably take a toll on the journalists toiling "downstairs." John Cruickshank, new publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, recently remarked that he had "inherited a journalist's nightmare. There are reporters in North America and Great Britain sifting through every public filing our firm has ever made to any regulator in the Western world, or beyond, looking for dirt.

"And there is no question when the scent of scandal is up, the staff wonders, did the cost of the owner's jets, the management fees, the multimillion dollar non-compete payments, depress our wages? Is that why there's so little authorized overtime? Why are there so few overseas trips? These are tough questions," Cruikshank says.

Despite the controversy swirling around Black, New York Sun editor Seth Lispky remains steadfast and loyal. After initially declining all comment, Lipsky later told me "Conrad Black is an active and trusted director, and we value his leadership enormously."

Rory O'Connor is the co-founder and president of GlobalVision.
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