A day after the Rigas family agreed to surrender most of its fortune to settle civil and criminal charges, the head of the Bush administration's Corporate Fraud Task Force Tuesday lashed into the Rigases, calling them "crooks" who corrupted the cable company they founded.
"The Rigases sort of hit for the cycle of corporate crime," said Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey. "You had self-dealing, you had accounting fraud, you had bank fraud, you had looting. You had everything you see in corporate crime."
Speaking to a small group of reporters at the National Press Club, Comey summed up the Bush administration's three-year effort to fight corporate crime. And in doing so, he described what separated the Rigases' company, Adelphia Communications Corp., from other companies caught up in corporate scandal.
"The challenge in Adelphia was that the crooks owned the house," Comey said.
Federal officials announced Monday that the Rigases had agreed to forfeit 95 percent of their assets or more than $1.5 billion -- to help settle the charges against them and against Adelphia. Experts called it the biggest corporate-crime asset forfeiture ever.
That means that John J. Rigas, the Adelphia founder and former Buffalo Sabres owner, will lose his fortune and, most likely, his freedom. Rigas, 80, and his son Timothy, 48, were convicted last July of 18 of the 23 felony charges brought against them, and are scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on June 1.
Asked to comment on the Adelphia case, Comey said it didn't involve as much money as the case against WorldCom, the giant telecommunications company. But the scandal at WorldCom was much more narrowly focused.
"Adelphia was a tough one because the corruption obviously involved the leaders but it went fairly deep into the accounting folks," Comey said.
Once investigators started looking closely at Adelphia's finances in the spring of 2002, however, Adelphia's board fired the Rigases and began cooperating with the probe.
"They booted the bad guys out, and since then, the company's cooperation has been extraordinary," Comey said.
And that fact, Comey said, probably kept Adelphia alive. If Adelphia had not cooperated, the company itself probably would have been charged with fraud, which could have stopped communities around the country from signing cable contracts with Adelphia.
Comey -- who served as U.S. attorney in Manhattan when the case against the Rigases was filed there recently announced plans to leave the Bush administration for private practice this fall.
Looking back on his last two years as head of the Corporate Fraud Task Force, Comey said he hoped that the frequent prosecutions of corporate executives would deter others from breaking the law.
Of the $1.5 billion the Rigases gave up, $720 million will go to set up a victims compensation fund. That makes this the second-largest such settlement ever, after the $750 million WorldCom settlement.
And it brings the story of Adelphia which is close to emerging from bankruptcy and being sold to Time Warner and Comcast -- close to an end.
Lawrence McMichael, an attorney for the Rigases, said Adelphia's lawsuit against the Rigases is likely to remain active, but the settlement covers many other issues.
"There will not be a lot of loose ends remaining," he said.