Former media baron Conrad Black's racketeering trial getting under way in Chicago

Former media baron Conrad M. Black's racketeering and fraud trial is getting under way with defense lawyers seeking jurors who will not turn sour over his Park Avenue condo, antique Rolls Royce and expense-account vacation on the Pacific island paradise of Bora Bora.

"They're not going to be looking for housewives and union members, they're going to be looking for stockholders, for aristocrats - just like him," veteran Chicago trial lawyer Robin Potter said as prosecutors and defense attorneys geared up for the start of jury selection Wednesday.

Black, 62, may no longer be chairman and chief executive of the sprawling Hollinger International newspaper empire, but he still commands attention from reporters, scores of whom are in Chicago to cover the trial.

The media frenzy is expected to be such that court officials have set aside two overflow courtrooms where the proceedings will be shown on closed-circuit television.

Hollinger once owned the Chicago Sun-Times, the Toronto-based National Post, The Daily Telegraph of London and the Jerusalem Post, as well as hundreds of community newspapers. The Toronto, London and Jerusalem papers have been sold and the company name has been changed to Sun-Times Media Group.

Black is charged with selling off hundreds of community newspapers and pocketing millions of dollars in payments from the buyers in exchange for promises not to compete in the markets where the newspapers circulated.

Prosecutors say the money should have gone to the shareholders.

Black also is charged with tapping the Hollinger till to pay for a vacation on Bora Bora, use of the company plane and most of a $62,000 (EUR 46,900) birthday party for his wife, conservative writer Barbara Amiel Black.

Trial watchers say it will be tough for the defense team led by Toronto-based Edward Greenspan and Edward M. Genson of Chicago to pick the jury of its dreams. But it must at least prevent anyone who might resent Black's lifestyle from getting into the jury box.

"They need a well-educated jury, sophisticated about investments, who understand expense accounts," says Rebekah Poston, a Miami-based former assistant U.S. attorney and organized-crime strike force prosecutor.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve, a one-time federal prosecutor who helped win a corruption conviction against former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, is presiding over Black's estimated three-month trial.

Prosecutors say that if convicted on all counts, the proud, silver-maned former corporate titan and author of an acclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt biography could be sent to prison for 101 years. But the judge would decide the sentence, and a much lesser term would be likely.

Going on trial with Black are three executives who were in his inner circle at Hollinger, the AP reports.

They are: Jack Boultbee, 63, of Vancouver, an accountant who was Hollinger's chief financial officer; Peter Y. Atkinson, 59, of Toronto, who was general counsel; and Mark Kipnis, 60, a lawyer who served as corporate secretary in Hollinger's Chicago headquarters.

Black's is the latest big trial for U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who last week obtained the perjury conviction in Washington of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fitzgerald's office also has won convictions against former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan and key aides to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But Fitzgerald won't be on the prosecution team in the courtroom for the Black trial. He is entrusting that job to four seasoned young pros: Eric H. Sussman, Jeffrey H. Cramer, Julie B. Ruder and Edward Siskel - nephew of the late movie critic Gene Siskel of "Siskel & Ebert" TV fame.

Cramer is to deliver the government's opening statement, which will be Monday if all goes according to schedule.

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