December 9, 2007 / 8:01 PM / 10 years ago

Ten years in prison for ex-mogul Conrad Black?

<p>Conrad Black leaves the Dirksen Federal courthouse in Chicago, August 1, 2007.John Gress</p>

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Conrad Black, once one of the world's most powerful press barons but now a convicted felon, will likely be sentenced on Monday to no more than 10 years in prison, legal analysts said.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors have sparred over a possible sentence since the Canadian-born British peer was found guilty in July of one count of obstructing justice and three counts of defrauding shareholders of former publishing giant Hollinger International Inc.

Once the overseer of Hollinger's far-flung newspaper empire that spanned from Jerusalem to Vancouver before much of its holdings were sold off, Black was acquitted on nine other charges, including racketeering conspiracy. Three fellow former Hollinger executives were found guilty of fraud and will be sentenced on Monday in U.S. District Court here.

Black is planning to appeal.

The company is a fraction of its former size and has been renamed Sun-Times Media Group Inc.

Judge Amy St. Eve, who presided over the 15-week jury trial, has wide leeway in determining sentences.

The government has asked St. Eve to sentence Black, 63, to between 16 and 24 years in prison, based on the prosecution's view the fraud scheme netted more than $31 million.

They objected to a probation report prepared for the judge that says the fraud amounted to $6.1 million -- which would recommend a sentence for Black of fewer than 10 years.

Securities fraud lawyer Andrew Stoltman said the obstruction count could be a "wild card" that the judge could use to send Black away for up to 15 years, rather than the four to seven years he expected. Under federal sentencing rules, Black must serve 85 percent of his sentence.

Prosecutors argued other aspects of the crime -- its sophistication, its leadership by Black and its violation of securities laws -- should stiffen the penalties. They also asked that Black and two co-conspirators forfeit $17 million.

"My impression was that the probationary report was a bit of an early Christmas present for the defendants," said Hugh Totten, a securities lawyer who has followed the case closely. "If the judge triangulates between the three of them I expect she ends up with a lesser sentence" on the low end of his predicted seven- to 10-year range.

"When you look at this case, it started out as a $500 million 'kleptocracy' and it ended up a $6 million fraud, according to the probation department. It has been oversold, and the government's arguments are a continuation of that," Totten added.

Black has remained free on $21 million bond although restricted by the judge since his conviction to his Palm Beach, Florida, estate or Chicago. It appeared unlikely the judge, who dismissed Black's request for a new trial, will extend his bond for the months-long appeal.

"I do not expect him to be frog-marched out in chains," Totten said. "She'll set a surrender date, probably for after the holidays."

In media interviews Black has continued to protest his innocence and blames "corporate governance zealots" for his plight.

Black's lawyers argued that he receive a comparable sentence to the 29 months Judge St. Eve is expected to approve a week later for Black's former partner David Radler, who pleaded guilty and testified to Black's involvement.

Legal experts said the case, the bulk of which involved slipping tax-free payments to executives past Hollinger's high-profile board of directors, does not resound as did earlier U.S. corporate swindles involving Enron Corp, Tyco International Ltd and home products maven Martha Stewart.

"This case as a sort of bookend of the Enron era. It's really a footnote in history as the last breath of the Enron prosecutions," Totten said. "It has none of Enron's scope, it has none of the Tyco debauchery and it has none of the blatant activity that you had with Martha Stewart."

Editing by Andre Grenon

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