Pardon can't excuse Conrad Black's crimes against Sun-Times

Conrad Black (Photo: U.S. Marshals Service, 2005)

The revered film critic Roger Ebert spoke for all of us who worked at the Chicago Sun-Times when he stood up to Conrad Black, the Canadian-born press baron who owned the newspaper for 10 years before he was charged with looting the company and defrauding investors.

“You can imagine my dismay when I read auditor's reports indicating the company was run as a ‘kleptocracy,’ and that, between you, you allegedly pocketed 97 percent of Hollinger's profits,” Ebert wrote in an open letter to Black and his partner in crime, publisher David Radler, in 2004.

“This while the escalators in the building were actually turned off to save on electricity and maintenance. It is hard to believe that the departing millions were not somehow related to compensation levels at the Sun-Times, since management pleaded poverty in its negotiations.”

In a Dirksen Federal Building courtroom in 2007 Black was found guilty of fraud and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to 6½ years in federal prison. He was released after serving about three years and was deported from the United States.

Ebert died in 2013, but I can only imagine what Roger would say if he heard that President Donald Trump granted Black a full pardon Wednesday.

The White House statement announcing the pardon cited Black for his "exceptional character" and his "distinguished reputation for helping others," and mentioned that he'd written biographies of two presidents — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon.

The statement didn't mention that just last year Black also wrote a highly flattering biography of Trump, titled Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.

The statement didn't mention that Black has written numerous columns and opinion pieces praising Trump. Just one day before the pardon was announced, National Review published an essay by Black headlined: “Smooth Sailing Ahead for Trump.”

Black's praise for Trump concluded: "Barring something completely unforeseeable, this president will have a stronger argument for reelection next year than any president since Richard Nixon in 1972 after his extraordinarily successful first term, if not Franklin D. Roosevelt’s double reelections in 1936 and 1944."

The statement didn't mention that under Black's ownership, the Sun-Times sold its building at Wabash Avenue on the Chicago River to Trump on the site where Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago now stands. The two had been partners in the project before Trump bought out Black.

The once-profitable Sun-Times never fully recovered from the crime spree carried out by Black and Radler. Coupled with a downturn in newspaper advertising, the fallout from their convictions and related scandals led to the Sun-Times filing for bankruptcy in 2009. (I accepted a buyout and left the paper a year earlier.)

Four ownership groups later, the Sun-Times continues to fight an uphill battle for survival. But I still remember the joy Ebert expressed for all us when our despised owners were finally nailed for their misdeeds.

"We have been freed from the greed of our former masters," Ebert wrote at the time. "Freed to make the best paper we can. If the Sun-Times survived [Rupert] Murdoch, [Robert] Page, Radler and Black, think what we can do without them.”

Wednesday's comment of the day: Chris Berry: Deidra White would be an all-star on any news team. CBS was fortunate to have her play a variety of roles for 40 years. As a mentor, leader and newsperson, she is one of the best.

Roger Ebert and Donald Trump (Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty, 2004)