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After prison, ‘the fight continues’ for John Rigas

COUDERSPORT, Pa. – So much has changed for John J. Rigas since that day in 2007 when he surrendered at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

His wife of 63 years – Doris – died in December 2014. He was not allowed to attend her funeral.

His Adelphia Communications empire, once the fifth-largest cable company in America, is long faded from the list of corporate giants – dissolved and dispersed among other firms.

And his $30 million Coudersport headquarters – the templelike monolith – stands eerily silent. It once bustled with hundreds of employees.

Rigas has changed too. At 91, he was granted “compassionate release” after eight years behind bars. Prison officials determined he is not a threat to society and is battling terminal cancer. The corporate titan who once owned the Buffalo Sabres now acknowledges nothing is more humbling than prison.

“It’s a hard life,” he said last week during a 90-minute conversation in the nearly empty office building here.

“It’s no place that anybody I know wanted to be.”

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PHOTOS: Gallery of John Rigas’ welcome back to Coudersport

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One aspect of Rigas’ life has not changed. Even after a federal jury in 2004 convicted him and his son, Timothy, of fraud and conspiracy charges, and even after prosecutors argued they “looted” Adelphia of $100 million while hiding $2.3 billion in debt, he maintains his innocence.

Rigas said he will devote the remaining days of his life to clearing the family’s name.

Now, the former private first class who fought for his country in France and Germany with the 20th Armored Division, views his government with suspicion, mistrust and disdain.

He says his conviction sprang from a politically fueled Justice Department determined to gain a corporate victory amid a slew of failures.

“There was a big effort to prove to the world that they were not protecting white-collar crime,” Rigas said. “We were just victims of that at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The fight continues, and the cause remains as strong as ever,” he added. “I think there is a time in life when we have to choose between right and wrong, and it was wrong to do what they did to Adelphia and Tim and me and the family.

“And it was wrong to hurt the shareholders and the surrounding areas, who had all these hopes for a better future. They took that all away.”

The ‘perp walk’

Rigas appears remarkably fit for a nonagenarian battling cancer and following such a long prison ordeal. He kidded a reporter he had not seen in many years that “you look older.”

He wore a sharp burgundy-colored sport coat, white shirt and tie on his diminutive frame. He asked as many questions as he gave answers.

Emotionally, he faltered only a few times during his interview: recalling the death of his wife, discussing his prison experience with Tim, and describing the events of July 24, 2002. That’s when John Rigas, Timothy Rigas and Michael Rigas (the former Adelphia operations chief who avoided prison by pleading guilty to falsifying records) were arrested at 6 a.m. in their Manhattan apartment.

The elder Rigas recounted how they were driving back to Coudersport through New Jersey the previous day, when they noticed they were being followed. Figuring that arrest was imminent, they returned to New York City and called their lawyer to arrange a surrender.

“Their response was ‘We’ll do what we want to do,’ ” Rigas recalled. “The next day was the perp walk.”

That night, the trio was portrayed on national television in handcuffs and shackles as they were paraded before cameras. President George W. Bush took to the airwaves that night, too.

“This government will investigate, will arrest and will prosecute corporate executives who break the law, and the Justice Department took action today,” Bush said. “Today was a day of action and a day of accomplishment in Washington, D.C.”

Rigas remembers federal officials taking their ties, belts and shoelaces to prevent them from hanging themselves.

“It was a tough day,” he said. “To this day, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to anybody.”

Life in prison

John Rigas was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison and Tim to 17 for their crimes. They were imprisoned together in three camps designed for white-collar offenders. In all three locations, they shared a cubicle, facing a life far different from corporate jets, the Sabres owner’s suite, and vacation homes.

A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Rigas built a national company with thousands of employees worth billions of dollars.

In prison he worked as an “errand boy,” accepting various assignments throughout the day.

“It was pretty minimal,” he said. “I think I got $9 a month.”

Rigas thought he had experienced much in his life as he entered prison at 83. He was about to learn much more.

“I became part of a world I never thought existed,” he said. “People quite well-known in the world of the Mafia, people that come from Colombia and dealing with gangs in the drug world.

“I also understood better the hopelessness and environment in which so many kids grow up in the ghetto,” he added. “The money looked so easy.”

Even in his debilitated physical condition, Rigas has set future goals for himself. One, he says, is to educate people about prison life and force an examination of that system.

“They go out in the world, so many of them, unprepared; with no family, no skills, very little education and they are frightened about what they will face out there,” he said. “Yet they want to get out of prison.

“So, I think the United States can do better with how we go about incarcerating people,” he added. “The system needs some help and a different approach.”

Rigas said that with only a few exceptions, he was treated with respect by guards, counselors and inmates. Convicts helped each other.

“But it’s a hard life,” he said.

Tim Rigas

Even as a convicted felon, John Rigas may remain the most respected man in Coudersport. On the night of his release from the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan, Pa., about 100 people – including a 100-year-old woman – stood in the cold of the courthouse square to welcome his return.

Many of those who have watched the Adelphia story for years seem to blame Tim Rigas for all that happened to the company and the family. John Rigas sets his jaw against that common perception. He will have none of that talk.

“One, I say we did nothing wrong, so it couldn’t have been Tim’s fault,” he said. “And two, Tim enjoyed the highest respect in the financial world and with Wall Street, and for his knowledge and integrity. He helped make Adelphia, and make it grow and prosper.

“And so,” he added, “that description or thought of Tim is just wrong.”

During their heyday, Tim and John Rigas shared Adelphia’s executive suite in Coudersport and the owner’s box at what is now First Niagara Center. At Butner, then Allenwood, Pa., and finally Canaan, they shared a small cubicle. Father and son were always close. Prison only strengthened the bond.

“We got closer than ever before. We understood each other as father and son,” the elder Rigas said. “And very honestly, Tim was an inspiration to a lot of people there because they realized how much love he has for family, and for his father, and how well he took care of me. I think a lot of prisoners carried that away with them.”

As cancer spread from the elder Rigas’ bladder to his kidneys and lungs, and as “compassionate release” efforts intensified, the two began to realize what it meant: Tim would be left behind, and that he might never see his father again.

John Rigas remains unsure if prison authorities will allow him back inside Canaan to visit, though the two occasionally talk on the phone.

Departure from Canaan should have proved a joyous day for John Rigas. It wasn’t. He bid goodbye to Tim, perhaps for the last time.

“There were a lot of tough days,” he said through teary eyes. “That was one of the toughest.”

One investor’s losses

Rance Baxter is 71 now, and has known John Rigas for most of his life. He remembers the young entrepreneur working day and night at his Coudersport Theatre, and like everyone in this picture-postcard borough, he says Rigas has done lots of good things for many people.

If a struggling farmer’s tractor broke down, Rigas might buy him a new one. Maybe that’s why so many investors trusted John Rigas.

“John said ‘bet the farm on this,’ ” Baxter recalled about investing in one of the Adelphia companies. “When you grow up knowing the guy all your life, you trust him.”

Baxter lost $96,000 when prosecutors charged the Rigases with hiding debt and using the publicly held company as their private piggybank. A friend in Wellsville lost $350,000.

“John is a master politician. He’s a fundraiser too, and renowned for working a crowd. He can be a real artist,” Baxter said while relaxing at Kaytee’s Family Restaurant just east of Coudersport.

As a result, many in Coudersport and surrounding Potter County “bet the farm.”

Baxter joined a suit with other shareholders attempting to recoup their losses. He said it “fizzled.” But it highlighted the depth and breadth of how much money was lost by so many investors.

Baxter seems philosophical about it all. He has survived health scares and Adelphia’s fall too, even if it amounted to “a real bite.”

“Did John deliberately do it? I don’t think so,” he said. “Was he naive? Most likely.”

Proving innocence

John Rigas is among the first to acknowledge losses like Baxter’s. He knows many of his friends and neighbors are now working in their old age because they lost their retirement savings in Adelphia.

“I recognize that there are a lot of people out there that feel we did something wrong, and I understand it,” he said. “I have no bitterness about all that. We just have to work harder to prove our innocence and that they’re wrong.”

In a criminal case, a person is entitled to remedies even after losing appeals, explained Lawrence G. McMichael, the Rigases’ longtime Philadelphia lawyer. The Rigas the case is now before a new judge – U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan – who has taken the rare step of approving some of his preliminary motions, McMichael said.

The new effort is based on the Rigas contention that the government withheld key evidence in the trial, and interfered with the defense by cutting off the Rigas assets. Though such appeals rarely succeed, McMichael says he is optimistic.

“It’s a very strong petition,” he said.

Still, Rigas acknowledges that a jury of his peers convicted him and his son on multiple counts, that his appeals have so far failed, and that he spent eight years in prison as a result.

But making the case now stands as his mission in life.

“I know how diligent Tim and I were about making sure that everything was brought to the board, explained and re-explained,” he said. “I know – and I’ve got to be careful – that the fear of government is very powerful and people get paralyzed.

“I’ve seen it happen with the German people with Hitler, and certainly with people who were close to Tim and me,” he added. “It’s a fear of government and what the consequences can be, and I know their stories were not truthful.”

Even if John Rigas displays a level of serenity in his return to Coudersport, he tightens when recalling the federal government and its power. Backed by the finest lawyers, he ultimately felt helpless.

“I have to admit how much anxiety there is and how difficult it is to take on a powerful government – with unlimited talent and money and resources,” he said. “That’s why so many people that are innocent plead guilty.”

The president’s television appearance to tout the Rigas arrests in 2002, he says, underscores his claim.

“It tells me politics plays a big part in all this,” he said.

Rigas considers the high point of his life was his service as a private first class during World War II, witnessing from a distance the liberation at Dachau. A profound “disappointment,” he says, now colors his attitude toward government.

“I understand they have a job to do,” he said. “But I’m disappointed because here are people that represent the best in the legal world. These people went to the finest institutions. But in my estimation, they betrayed what the Constitution stood for. They betrayed what the men and women in war gave their lives for, so we have the privilege of representing justice and the Constitution.

“I believe they violated that,” he added. “And it hurt.”

Rigas says he understands the bitterness that some modern politics holds for government and its power. Maybe too much “privilege and power,” he says, is bestowed upon the nation’s justice system.

“Am I bitter? It’s not my nature to be bitter,” he says, “nor do I try to be vindictive.”

What might have been

Anthony M. Masiello, the former three-term mayor of Buffalo, dealt closely with Rigas when Adelphia proposed a 20-story headquarters where HarborCenter now stands. More than 2,000 jobs were promised at the time, and Masiello thinks Buffalo and Adelphia would have prospered together.

Then Rigas lost Adelphia and the Sabres too.

“He was sincere and he believed in Buffalo, and it evolved into his second home,” Masiello said. “In all likelihood, the Rigases would have kept the Sabres and enormous benefits would have followed.”

Maybe an Adelphia headquarters, all its jobs, and further development – like what new Sabres owner Terry Pegula has fostered – would have simultaneously sprouted.

“We could have either/or, but I think there was plenty of room for both,” the former mayor said. “They saw Buffalo as a place to hang their hat, and back then, there weren’t lots who wanted to do that.”

Rigas thinks about what might have been too. He called the jobs and skyscraper “a good start.”

“As as I got involved in Buffalo, we were in a position as a company to bring good jobs and a corporate presence that was significant,” he said.

What lies ahead

Rigas seems intent on catching up. He constantly asks about the Sabres, about former coaches like Ted Nolan and Don Luce, and reminisces about his long association with St. Bonaventure University. He recalls watching Bonnies basketball in tiny Butler Gym almost 75 years ago, and holds a special affection for the university’s Franciscan friars.

Never once in his conversation with The News did he refer to his spreading cancer, except to say he feels stronger since arriving home and looks forward to the aggressive treatments he is receiving.

He only looks to the future. For the first time, he recently watched his grandson play basketball for Coudersport, and has been spotted in his old Reilly Center seats for a couple of St. Bonaventure basketball games. He talks about writing a book, counseling prisoners, reconnecting with old friends, and most of all, clearing his name.

He considered staying in prison so as not to leave Tim, he said, until his son reasoned the elder Rigas could prove a force in making their case. Still, he worries his time may be limited.

“I do worry that I might not be around,” he said. “But I’m sure Tim and his family will continue on because they have strong feelings about their legacy, and the truth will prevail.”

Regrets? Rigas laments that he didn’t follow the lead of other cable pioneers and sell Adelphia when he had the chance. Maybe this mess would never have happened, he said.

He is sorry for all those who lost money. And he remains horribly affected by his inability to be with his wife when she died, or even obtain a furlough for her funeral.

“It just wasn’t their policy,” he explained.

Rigas recalls being “overwhelmed” at the sight of 100 Coudersport residents holding signs and chanting his name upon his return from Canaan.

“I can’t find words to adequately express it,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. You can’t imagine spending eight years in the ugly world of prison, but that’s where my reality was.

“How much support; how many prayers I’ve had from so many people,” he said. “Others might feel otherwise, but just knowing so many care for me and showed their love. That’s huge.”

Rigas exudes optimism, even confidence about what lies ahead. He looks forward to soon celebrating the 100th anniversary of Texas Hots, the Wellsville institution his family still owns.

“I can still go back there and get a free cup of coffee and a hot dog,” he said.

He does not dwell on the end of his life, but hopes he will be exonerated by the time that day comes.

“I feel that at the end of the day, we will prevail,” he said. “Lies can’t last forever.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com