BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Adelphia Communications founder and former Buffalo Sabres owner John Rigas died Thursday in Pennsylvania. He was 96.
Rigas, a Wellsville native and Army veteran, turned what was a $300 investment in 1952 into cable giant Adelphia Communications Corp., which reported over 2 million subscribers in 1998.
Rigas was revered locally in the 1990s as both a businessman and the owner of the Sabres, who made a run to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final two years after Rigas bought the team. But Rigas’ legacy was permanently altered by a multibillion-dollar fraud and conspiracy scandal that drove Adelphia to bankruptcy and landed both Rigas and his son, Timothy, in prison.
John and Timothy Rigas were convicted by a federal jury in 2004 for conspiracy, bank fraud and securities fraud. John was found guilty of 18 of the 23 charges against him and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Timothy was convicted on the same charges and later got 20 years.
After serving eight years, John Rigas was granted a “compassionate release” in 2016 when it appeared he had little time left as cancer spread from his bladder to his lungs and kidney. But Rigas, then 91, recovered and lived the rest of his life in Coudersport, Pa., where he remained beloved.
Fickinger Funeral Home in Coudersport said public services are not being planned at this time.
Timothy was released in 2019. John Rigas said at the time that both he and his son were still appealing their convictions.
When Rigas was initially arrested in 2002, the NHL took control of the Sabres. Tom Golisano purchased the team in 2003 and owned them until selling to current owner Terry Pegula in 2011. Other Adelphia assets such as Empire Sports Network ceased operations in the following years.
Both Rigases could have been sentenced to life in prison, the Associated Press reported in 2005. The sentences were among the harshest handed down in any U.S. court since the fall of Enron in 2001 touched off a rash of corporate scandals that rocked the markets and have cost investors billions of dollars.
“This is a tragedy lacking in heroes,” U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand said at the sentencing.
Prosecutors had accused the Rigases of using complicated cash-management systems to spread money around to various family-owned entities and as a cover for stealing about $100 million for themselves.
They were accused of spending the money on a lengthy list of personal luxuries. Prosecutors said John Rigas had ordered two Christmas trees flown to New York for his daughter at a cost of $6,000, ordered as many as 17 company cars and had the company buy 3,600 acres of timberland — for $26 million — to preserve the view outside his Pennsylvania home.
Worse still for investors, the company collapsed into bankruptcy in 2002 after it disclosed a staggering $2.3 billion in off-balance-sheet debt that prosecutors said was deliberately hid by the Rigases.
“Our intentions were good. The results were not,” Timothy Rigas told the judge prior to sentencing.
Judge Sand declined to force the two men to pay restitution, noting the family has already agreed to forfeit more than $1.5 billion to settle regulatory charges.
At the most dramatic moment of a hearing that stretched nearly three hours, John Rigas slowly rose from his chair just before being sentenced, shuffled to a lectern and addressed the judge, speaking slowly and softly.
“In my heart and in my conscience, I’ll go to my grave really and truly believing that I did nothing but try to improve the conditions of my employees,” he said.
He said repeatedly he had led a blessed life, and even thanked members of the military “that fought for America and gave their lives because they believed in America and what it stood for.”
“If I did anything wrong, I apologize,” he said.
Just after he was sentenced, the elder Rigas, hunched forward in his seat, held his right hand over his mouth and dabbed at his eyes and nose with a tissue.
The judge, while expressing concern for Rigas’ age and poor health, made repeated reference to the investors who had placed their trust in the Rigas family, many losing their retirement security.
At one point, Rigas’ lawyer Peter Fleming tried to convince Sand that his client believed deeply in philanthropy, loved the town of Coudersport and was “obviously scared to death of prison.”
The judge interjected: “Do you see what he did? What he did to Coudersport, what he did with assets and by means which were not appropriately his?”
“To be a great philanthropist with other people’s money really is not very persuasive,” Sand said.
A second Rigas son, Michael, the company’s former executive vice president for operations, faced retrial after jurors were deadlocked on securities fraud and bank fraud charges against him. He later pleaded guilty.
Former Adelphia assistant treasurer Michael Mulcahey was tried with the Rigases but was acquitted of all charges.
This is a developing story, check back for updates. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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Nick Veronica is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a Digital Executive Producer in 2021. He previously worked at NBC Sports and The Buffalo News. You can follow Nick on Facebook and Twitter and find more of his work here.