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John Rigas is free but shouldn’t be seen as a hero

I don’t have a problem with a federal judge letting 91-year-old John Rigas go back home to die.

But it was hard to watch as about 100 people in his hometown of Coudersport, Pa., turned out to greet the cancer-stricken tycoon of the Adelphia Communications empire as a returning hero.

Because John Rigas is no hero.

And this was no ordinary homecoming.

It was the homecoming for the man who, with his son Timothy, was at the heart of one of the country’s biggest corporate frauds. In its wake, he helped cheat Adelphia investors out of billions of dollars, wiped out thousands of jobs, including hundreds at the cable television company’s Coudersport headquarters, and pushed the Buffalo Sabres into bankruptcy.

It was the homecoming of a man who treated Adelphia as a personal piggy bank for his family, using company money to build golf courses, buy timber rights in a nearby Pennsylvania forest.

It was the homecoming of a supposedly folksy, down-to-earth and benevolent executive, who used company money so his family could lead a life of affluence, with a professional hockey team, an African safari and the use of three private jets and swanky vacation homes in hot spots like Cancun, Mexico; Beaver Creek, Colo.; and Hilton Head, S.C.

It was the homecoming of a man who, with Tim’s help, built Adelphia into the nation’s sixth-biggest cable TV company on a foundation of lies, with the Rigases scrambling from one falsehood to the next to keep up the appearance that the company was doing everything that Wall Street and its investors were expecting.

Except Adelphia was a house of lies – and federal prosecutors say the lying started as far back as 1992.

To keep the charade going, the Rigases lied about how many subscribers Adelphia had.

They deceived investors about how much the company was spending.

They used accounting tricks and deceit to make it look like the company was bringing in more revenue than it really was.

All the while, trusting investors bought Adelphia stock, believing that everything was on the up and up.

It wasn’t cheap, either. Adelphia stock traded for as much as $87 a share. By that point, the stock that the Rigas family owned in Adelphia was worth $2 billion. Lying really did pay.

It allowed the Rigases to be generous benefactors in Coudersport, where they built the company’s headquarters and employed hundreds of local residents. They did favors for people, supported community groups and causes. They were down-to-earth people.

I remember coming into the office on the Sunday morning after the Rigases bought the Buffalo Sabres to work on a follow-up story with fellow reporter Gene Warner. We needed to talk to John Rigas but weren’t sure how to reach him. On a lark, we looked in the phone book, not expecting to find him, since most top executives and high-profile people aren’t listed.

But John Rigas, influential executive and soon-to-be NHL owner, was in the phone book, just like most everyone else. We called, a family member answered and John came right to the phone.

And people returned the favors. John Rigas liked to tell the story of how, in Adelphia’s early days, he wasn’t sure how he would make an important payment that was coming due. Then Betty, one of Adelphia’s office workers, came up to him and said she knew he was in a financial pickle. Betty told him she had some extra money and offered to give it to Rigas so he could make the payment.

It’s understandable why Coudersport has a soft spot for John Rigas. He’s a likable person. It seemed that he wanted to do right by Coudersport.

But that doesn’t excuse Rigas from his role in the destruction that Adelphia’s collapse left in its wake.

The ordinary people who lost their jobs.

The ordinary people who invested in Adelphia stock or put it in their retirement accounts, only to see it wiped out.

The oh-so-real possibility that the bankrupt Sabres franchise would be sold and moved out of Buffalo until Rochester billionaire Thomas Golisano rescued the team.

The plan for the Adelphia office tower on Buffalo’s waterfront that never came to pass.

So it’s nice that John Rigas can spend his remaining days at home with his family.

After all, he spent more than eight years in prison, which is three years more than Enron financial mastermind-turned-state’s witness Andrew Fastow served. Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s CEO, had his 24-year sentence reduced by 10 years and could be released next year, after serving less than 11 years of his sentence.

At 91, Rigas has paid the price. But he shouldn’t hold his head high.

It should be bowed in shame.