- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

CHICAGO — Attorneys for Conrad Black assured jurors as his corporate fraud trial opened in March that the case involving the former media tycoon and British lord was not another Enron.

It wasn’t. But Enron turned out to be inextricably linked to his downfall.

A federal court jury’s convictions of Black and three other former executives of Hollinger International Inc. on Friday signaled the latest in a series of triumphs by government prosecutors in an Enron-inspired crackdown on corporate crime that began five years ago.

If not for the widespread outrage generated by the Houston energy company’s scandal, which left thousands jobless and wiped out billions of dollars in market value and employee pension plans, Black and his cohorts likely would have gotten away with their crimes, legal analysts say.

“On an order of magnitude, this case doesn’t compare to Enron or WorldCom,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who represents companies and individuals accused of white-collar crimes. “But … it’s another example of federal prosecutors aggressively pursuing a once-powerful CEO and successfully convincing jurors that his conduct amounted to an intentional fraud.”

“That’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. “Five years ago, that was almost unthinkable.”

Amid anger and frustration at scandals from the dot-com era involving Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and other corporations, Washington took two major steps in July 2002 to try to reduce corporate misdeeds.

The White House created a corporate fraud task force to root out and prosecute white-collar criminals — a mission Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill likened at the time to the work of mob-buster Eliot Ness.

Congress and President Bush teamed up three weeks later in the toughest crackdown on boardroom fraud since the Depression, setting stringent new standards for all U.S. public company boards, management and public accounting firms in the form of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Five years after executives started getting caught in those nets, the rate of corporate convictions has slowed, partly because of the higher levels of accountability and scrutiny. But prosecutors continue to pursue such cases aggressively when evidence surfaces.

“There’s no doubt that beginning a few years back — and particularly Enron focused people’s attention on it — there’s a grave concern with integrity and making sure that corporate fraud is stamped out,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said after the Black convictions.

“They’re clearly a priority,” he said of corporate crime cases. “And they became more of a priority a few years ago.”

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