Greek-American John Rigas, the cable television and telecommunications magnate who was prosecuted for fraud in 2002, died on Thursday, September 30 at the age of 96. He had been released five years ago in a compassionate measure after serving a sentence in a federal penitentiary in Canaan, Pennsylvania.
After amassing one of the US’ largest cable television and communications empires, “Adelphia Communications,” Rigas lost it all after a trial which also involved his sons Timothy and Michael, along with two other executives.
They were accused not only of using company funds for personal purposes but also hiding $2.3 billion in debt from Adelphia investors in a financial scandal that rocked the entire country.
A WWII veteran, John Rigas was the son of Greek immigrants, growing up in Wellsville, New York. His parents live in an apartment over the restaurant they owned, called the “Texas Hot Diner.”
As the Buffalo News reported, he had become one of the most prominent business figures in the area prior to his precipitous fall from grace, even buying the Buffalo Sabres hockey team at one point.
Later, he had had plans to construct his corporate headquarters next to the arena. Sports played a major part in Rigas’ life, having been a multipart athlete in football, baseball and track and basketball while in high school.
After WWII broke out, Rigas was shipped to Europe and he fought as part of an armored infantry division in France.
When he returned to the States, he earned a degree in management engineering from the esteemed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Disgraced cable magnate John Rigas was a gifted engineer
A gifted engineer, he later recalled to the Buffalo News in an interview “As I look back over my business career, meeting after meeting, I can see that I just unconsciously ask, ‘What is the problem? What do we know? What don’t we know?
“That sequential, engineering approach became one of my strengths in business. I could reach the heart of the problem a lot quicker than many others.”
After working for the Sylvania Company for several years, Rigas borrowed funds from his family and friends to buy a movie theater — which he himself operated nights, after working all day at Sylvania, often having to sleep at the theater.
His company Adelphia was born after his purchase of the cable franchise owned by the borough — for $300. The only problem was that he bought it from overdrawn funds.
Eventually, however, he made it more than a going concern — it blossomed into a cable giant, buying up other cable systems.
However, the company was never out of debt, and this proved to be Rigas’ downfall. As he admitted to his secretary at one time, according to the BN, “‘well, Angie, I’m either going to become a millionaire or I’m going to go bankrupt.”
As it turns out, both fates awaited Rigas, who gained such acclaim in the Buffalo area that he was once seen as its economic savior.
Locally renowned for his eagerness to help others, Rigas actually flew patients to their cancer treatments and was one of the major donors to the local hospital. He even was responsible for bringing the Buffalo or Rochester Philharmonic Orchestras to Coudersport, where his corporate headquarters were located, for Christmas concerts.
The magnate even served on the board of St. Bonaventure University, sending his sons to prestigious Ivy League colleges.
While noted for his philanthropic works, which became legendary, Rigas was taking as much as $1 million a month in cash advances from his company to fund his luxurious and showy lifestyle.
His 10,000-acre Wending Creek Farm property on which he and his family lived, was going to be the site of a $20 million golf course.
Flying around in a Gulfstream jet that had once belonged to King Hussein of Jordan, Rigas was living the high life despite the crippling debt that his company was incurring.
His house of cards fell apart after federal prosecutors formally accused him and his sons of creating a scheme that bilked taxpayers of an astonishing $60 billion while they took $1 billion out of their own company, hiding its debt from shareholders. Meanwhile the family was using the money not only for luxuries but buying stock with it, with Adelphis itself responsible for repaying the loans.
Rigas and his sons were arrested at their Manhattan apartment in 2002, led in disgrace in handcuffs.
Serving his sentence in Pennsylvania, Rigas was diagnosed with bladder cancer several years ago, and was released as a compassionate gesture eight years ago after seemingly not having long to live.
He returned to Coudersport with the majority of the local people welcoming him with open arms, despite the fact that some of them had lost their life savings in investing with Adelphia.
The BN reports that “His old friends and employees held welcoming signs in front of the historic Potter County courthouse and erupted into thunderous cheers” and “swarmed his car shouting ‘God Bless You, John’ and ‘Welcome home, Mr. Rigas’ and ‘We love you.”
After his release Rigas lived another eight years at the family farm, helping with the remains of the family affairs and working on his son Tim’s legal case. Tim was released in 2019.
Rigas’ wife, the former Doris Nielsen, to whom he was married for 61 years, passed away in 2014.
In addition to Tim, Rigas is survived by sons Michael and James, their daughter, Ellen, and six grandchildren. There will be a private funeral service for Rigas in the coming days.