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The push to bring John Rigas home

COUDERSPORT, Pa. – Agnes McGlinchey was enjoying a smoke outside the auto bureau office a few days ago, just down South Main Street from the headquarters that once employed hundreds of local residents at Adelphia Communications.

“The Golden Eagle; that’s what we used to call it,” she said, nodding toward the hulking monument that still resembles a Greek temple. “Every high school and college kid in town got hired there summers. There was money here then.”

But since Adelphia’s demise beginning in 2002, the lustre has faded from this picturesque town of 2,500 people, 110 miles south of Buffalo. Three years later, John J. Rigas was convicted of looting the company he founded and sent to prison.

Now Adelphia’s former $30 million headquarters appears dark and foreboding. Snow drifts across the unshoveled front steps.

Local residents acknowledge that Rigas’ crimes normally would require that he serve out his 12-year sentence at a federal prison in northeastern Pennsylvania. After all, prosecutors proved 18 counts of conspiracy and fraud that caused one of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history. His crimes destroyed not only his company, but the livelihoods of hundreds of local residents.

But that’s not the general feeling in Coudersport.

John Rigas is 91 years old, and cancer has spread throughout his body. His friends say he weighs less than 100 pounds and does not have long to live.

Now, Coudersport wants him to come home.

“I feel like he’s sown goodness and kindness wherever he’s been, including where he is now,” said Mitch Houghtaling, a former Adelphia paralegal helping to lead a “compassionate release” effort for Rigas.

She cites Rigas’ terminal cancer to justify returning him to Coudersport from the minimum security camp adjacent to the United States Penitentiary at Canaan, where he is incarcerated with his son. Timothy Rigas is serving a 17-year sentence stemming from the same crimes.

“I’d like to see him reap some of that kindness and mercy now from the justice system,” she said of John. “I’m hoping he can come home before the end of the month.”

Shares barracks with son

Rigas no longer flies around the country on the Adelphia corporate jet, as he did when he ran the nation’s fifth-largest cable company. Nor does he entertain friends and customers in the owner’s suite of the Buffalo Sabres, which he once owned.

Now he lives in a prison dormitory with other white-collar criminals, bunking in the same low-walled cubicle with his son.

John Rigas spends his days reading, talking with other prisoners, and working to prove the innocence he still maintains, according to those who know him well. He still faces two more years in prison after a federal judge in Manhattan last month denied his initial bid for the compassionate release provision that can send qualifying prisoners home at the end of their lives.

Lawrence G. McMichael, a Philadelphia attorney who has represented Rigas for several years, argues his client meets all the U.S. Bureau of Prisons criteria for compassionate release: he suffers from a terminal illness, his life expectancy is short, he has served two-thirds of his sentence (8½ of 12 years), and he poses no threat to the community.

In addition, medical treatment for Rigas’ bladder, lung and kidney cancer is costing the federal government significant money that the family is willing to assume outside prison walls, McMichael said. The attorney is pushing his release through bureaucratic channels, enlisting the help of Rep. Glenn T. Thompson, and hopes for the best.

“I have to be an optimist and hope that people do the right and compassionate thing,” McMichael said, “and if they do that, John will be released before he dies.”

But McMichael noted that the request for Rigas’ release must stem from the bureau, and even if it grants the motion, it can not control how quickly a federal judge will review the case. In addition, he noted the Bureau of Prisons has been asked to grant an application entirely at odds with its mission.

“It holds people in prison, not lets them out,” he said. “We’re asking them to do what they normally don’t do.”

The congressman

Thompson, the Republican congressman who represents a 15-county swath of central and western Pennsylvania, was kicking off his re-election campaign recently before dozens of supporters at Kaytee’s Family Restaurant on the edge of Coudersport. Near the end of his appearance, Houghtaling and Patti Bowman presented Thompson with compassionate release petitions signed by almost 300 local residents, along with letters from several local officials. They had just spent the noon hour canvassing Kaytee’s for even more signatures. Nobody refused.

“It’s the easiest petition I’ve ever circulated,” Houghtaling said.

Dan Cowbern, a field technician for the area’s emergency radio system, was more than happy to add his name.

“You’ve got these government officials letting out all these terrorists,” he said, referring to President Obama’s release of suspected terrorists. “But there is no reason for this man to be in there. He served his time. Let him come home and die in peace.

“He’s done a lot for this community,” he added. “Not only this community, but a lot of communities.”

Indeed, a 2001 survey of 800 local leaders conducted by The Buffalo News rated the then-owner of the Sabres as the region’s most powerful and respected businessman. The World War II veteran bought the franchise in what was essentially an estate sale when the team was at its peak, later promising an Adelphia operations center and 2,000 jobs for a new Buffalo office tower where HarborCenter now stands.

He supported charities in Coudersport, Olean and Buffalo, while proving a major benefactor to nearby St. Bonaventure University. He even brought the Buffalo and Rochester philharmonic orchestras to Coudersport for annual Christmas concerts.

Paul W. Heimel, a Potter County commissioner who once served as Adelphia’s communications chief, still treasures the photographs of his Little League team of 10-year-olds. Heimel played on the team with the young Rigas boys; their father coached.

He also recalls how in those days, the rising young businessman sought to bring Coudersport along with him. Rigas helped lure the Pure Carbon Co. (now Morgan Advanced Materials) to Coudersport in the 1960s. For decades, the company has been among Potter County’s top five employers.

“That said a lot about the kind of person he was long before his family had such considerable wealth,” Heimel said. “He was constantly helping people.”

Pete Ryan, who was lunching at Kaytee’s a few days ago, has visited Rigas many times along with his wife, Debbie, at three federal prisons. He believes his friend is still held to a higher standard.

“I believe if John had pleaded guilty, they would have let him out five years ago. But he didn’t because he’s not,” Ryan said. “Nobody has any idea what he’s done for people.”

He said Rigas always insisted that Adelphia employees serve in Rotary or Lions or coach baseball. Adelphia’s jobs paid well, he added, and insists that federal prosecutors were intent all along on making Rigas a poster boy for white-collar crime.

“He was the perfect storm for the government at the time. ‘An easy catch. Enron was too big. Let’s get this family,’ ” Ryan said. “I’m not saying he’s beyond reproach, but they might have given him six months to get things cleaned up. If they had, our town would be thriving now.”

The prosecutors

Not everyone in Coudersport is so keen on Rigas’ return, even if to die.

“Let him rot,” said Melinda Monroe while reading at the Coudersport library. “He’s corrupt and deserves to be in jail.”

Monroe said she worked many years for “Doris and John,” cleaning the Coudersport Theatre. That’s where Rigas launched his career after opening it in 1952. Doris Rigas, his wife of 61 years, died just over a year ago.

“They weren’t a bunch you could get along with,” Monroe added. “And a lot of people lost their jobs because of him.”

Federal prosecutors also did not view him as the benevolent grandfather who was beloved in his community. In 2002, they accused him and other Adelphia officials of concocting a fraud that cost taxpayers $60 billion, while looting the company of at least $1 billion.

They said the Rigases hid Adelphia’s true debt from investors in order to sustain the stock price, hiding $2.3 billion in co-signed loans. They claimed Rigas and his son used the money for luxuries and buying Adelphia stock, with the company responsible for repaying the loans.

Even President George W. Bush weighed in at the time of the Rigas arrests.

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

When the Rigases were sentenced in Manhattan in 2005, U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand told the father and son they were running “a Ponzi scheme.”

“The man I have to sentence is the man reflected in the evidence, a man who long ago sent Adelphia on a track of lying and cheating and defrauding,” Sand said then. “Regretfully for everyone, this was not stopped over 10 years ago but continued and got more brazen and culminated in one of the largest frauds in corporate history.”

The legislators

James J. Snyder, a Cattaraugus County legislator and longtime Rigas friend, also learned in recent weeks that all is not forgotten in the Rigas case. He attempted to sign up Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, to assist Thompson in making the New York case for release. Reed declined.

“Our office is not involved and we have no intention of getting involved,” Reed spokeswoman Brandy Brown said.

Snyder, a former Republican congressional candidate and White House aide to President George H.W. Bush, said he was not pleased.

”Come on and do the right thing,” he said. “It’s way beyond politics at this point.”

Back in Pennsylvania, Thompson shows more interest. At Kaytee’s, the congressman emphasized that he was only representing a constituent of his 5th Congressional District when he brought the Rigas cause directly to the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons.

Still, he told those handing him petitions that he was “honored” to make the case.

“I can’t think of a situation where it would be more applicable,” Thompson said. “As the representative for Potter County, I would have to say that despite anything that happened that led to this situation, the Rigas family is known for its generosity and sense of community – here and in New York as well.”

The friends

Ryan, the retired dentist who often visits Rigas, said the former cable czar thirsts for any news from home.

“He’ll say ‘tell me the truth about my grandson playing basketball. How’s he really doing?’” Ryan said. “Then he’ll ask about the movie theater. ‘Is it clean? Is everybody having a good time?’”

Ryan’s wife, Debbie, gets emotional as she relates that Rigas will also ask about the Coudersport Theatre’s popcorn.

“He wants to know if it’s still good,” she said. “I just miss him so much.”

Sitting quietly against Kaytee’s wall during Thompson’s visit to Coudersport, Rigas’ two other sons, Michael and James, were wondering if they will get their father home “in time.” The two Rigas sons escaped the fate of their father and brother (Michael, the former Adelphia operations chief, avoided prison by pleading guilty to falsifying records). They now work furiously behind the scenes on their father’s behalf.

Michael Rigas said the family hopes to bring his father back to Coudersport, then seek life-prolonging treatment at an advanced cancer center. Time is important to his father, he said, as he continues appealing his case.

“One of the things he has always wanted to do is prove his innocence and be vindicated before he passes away,” he said.

But then Michael Rigas pauses as the reality of compassionate release sets in.

For eight years, Tim Rigas has lived with his father at federal prisons in Butner, N.C., Allenwood, Pa., and now Canaan. In recent years, Michael Rigas said his brother and father have shared just about everything, adding that Tim cares for the ailing Rigas.

It will be a difficult day, Michael Rigas acknowledged, if all their efforts succeed. Then Tim Rigas must bid his father goodbye.

“He wants to see it as much as anyone,” Michael Rigas said of his brother. “But at the same time, the parting will be a difficult one. They’ve been so close.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com