June 21, 2007 / 5:30 PM / 11 years ago

Conrad Black trial shifts to co-defendants' roles

CHICAGO, June 21 (Reuters) - A lawyer for one of Conrad Black’s three co-defendants urged jurors on Thursday not to lump the men together when they decide if the four stole millions of dollars from the former media baron’s company.

“You need to think about this as four separate trials,” said Michael Schachter, summing up his defense of Peter Atkinson, 60, who was vice president and general counsel of Hollinger Inc.

Hollinger Inc. was a Canadian holding company for former publishing empire Hollinger International Inc. during the time prosecutors say the criminal fraud took place.

While the charges against the four men vary, with Black facing the most serious allegations, prosecutors have continually suggested they were all equally guilty of a pattern of fraud that stole $60 million from Hollinger International, once one of the world’s largest newspaper conglomerates.

“There has not been a single witness, not a single witness, who testified that Peter lied to them, misled them or deceived them,” Schachter said of Atkinson. “We have looked at 700 documents and not one has showed Peter Atkinson lied, misled or deceived anyone.”

The closing arguments in the 14-week-old federal trial are likely to last into next week before the jury begins deliberations.

Atkinson is charged with mail and wire fraud and filing false tax returns, as is Mark Kipnis, 59, a former company lawyer.

Black, 62, and former Hollinger Inc. chief financial officer Jack Boultbee, 63, are facing the same charges as Atkinson, as well as three additional wire fraud counts. Those relate to what prosecutors say was an abuse of company perks, including a trip to Bora Bora and a lavish company-subsidized birthday party for Black’s wife.

The Canadian-born Black, now a member of Britain’s House of Lords, also stands accused of racketeering and obstruction of justice. He faces the stiffest potential penalties — decades in prison and a forfeiture of millions of dollars.

Boultbee’s lawyer, Gus Newman, wound up his closing defense earlier on Thursday, also suggesting that the jury weigh each defendant individually.

He said also stressed that non-competition agreements at the heart of the government’s case were not only approved by the company’s audit committee, but were absolutely legitimate.

Black and the others are accused of stealing $60 million in such payments that prosecutors contend rightfully belonged to the publishing giant and its shareholders. The payments compensated Black and his associates for agreeing not to compete in the same market against the buyers of hundreds of publications they were selling to pay accumulated debt.

Hollinger International, based in Chicago, has since been renamed the Sun-Times Media Group Inc.SVN.N.

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