COUDERSPORT, Pa. – John J. Rigas refers to the past two years as *#8220;this terrible experience.*#8221;
*#8220;Some days,*#8221; he says, *#8220;I get really depressed.*#8221;
His riches and high profile lie in the scrap heap of a fraud trial so massive its documents are stored in trailer trucks. His virtue is being assailed in a Manhattan federal courtroom, where he, the founder and former chief executive officer of Adelphia Communications Corp., is on trial with two of his sons and a former financial officer for fraud. Prosecutors blame them for Adelphias plunge into bankruptcy in 2002.
What one Rigas detractor in this town of about 2,600 called this whole sick mess is a disgrace that has yet to be proved to most here. They believe in the man, if not in his entire family, because of his generosity and kindness and because of small-town bonding.
*#8220;He has done more good for this community than he could ever have done wrong,*#8221; said Kaye Gearhart, who worked at Adelphia for years before opening a restaurant on Main Street several years ago. *#8220;He is innocent until proven guilty, and I expect John to be exonerated. Come back for the celebration.*#8221;
The trial has entered its third week as snow melts grudgingly from the hillsides that surround the Potter County seat in the states lumber-rich northern tier. Rigas says he expects it to last three to five months.
*#8220;He has done more good for this
community than he could ever
have done wrong.*#8221;
He was not in court the first part of last week but at the Mayo Clinic. Cancer was found on his bladder five years ago, when he also had triple-bypass heart surgery. He was back at the Mayo Clinic yesterday for treatment when the judge in the trial in New York said prosecutors had made *#8220;an egregious error*#8221; and a motion for a mistrial would be appropriate. The error arose from testimony by former Adelphia director Dennis Coyle on the financial requirements for some loan guarantees.
Of all the surprises in the case, the charges of *#8220;massive looting*#8221; were the biggest to many in Coudersport. Several residents said *#8220;shock*#8221; was their first reaction. Some say they have been *#8220;holding our breath,*#8221; anxious in part out of fear Adelphia will pull more of its operations to Colorado, where now only its top layer operates. About 1,300 people still work for Adelphia in Coudersport.
Rigas, sons Timothy and Michael, and Mike Mulcahey oversaw Adelphias amassing of debt in the 1990s as the firm emerged as a major player in the rapidly consolidating cable industry. Rigas, in an interview, said Adelphia had to grow to compete.
*#8220;Or we could have sold out. But one reason we didnt is because Ive seen many companies sell and move, and too many people here depended on us,*#8221; he said.
But along the way, prosecutors allege, the Rigas clan jointly borrowed from family businesses and Adelphia, using the proceeds to buy stocks and pay for such luxuries as a $13 million golf course, to infuse Rigas money-bleeding hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, to pay for use of corporate jets for personal trips and for piddling expenses such as 100 pairs of slippers for Rigas 47-year-old son, Tim.
Adelphia was Rigas baby, something he created and was in control of for 34 years before it went public. He wasnt some privileged kid handed a company, like his sons, people will remind you; he scraped and plugged away at it, from 1952 when cable television was brand new. Adelphia became the fifth-largest cable company and eventually employed one-eighth of the towns people.
Rigas supporters in Coudersport can reel off a list of the times somebody in town needed help and he responded. They say he never acted like a big shot, and he never fails to ask people about their children and their parents by name. *#8220;He probably has the softest touch of anyone I ever met,*#8221; said Jimmie Bruzzi, who owns the dry cleaner shop on Main Street. *#8220;There are people who say, I know he couldnt have done it. They dont know. But theres this faith.*#8221;
Rigas gave friends and employees free weekends at his condos on Mount Washington and in Cancun, Mexico, perks cited at his trial as Adelphias burden. The Rigases have been excoriated for their personal use of the corporate jets, but Coudersport remembers that Rigas has flown cancer patients to the Cleveland and Mayo clinics for treatments. He also flew a family to Texas for a memorial service for their son who was killed in military training. *#8220;People should praise him for that,*#8221; said Bruzzi. *#8220;Its what corporations should do more of.*#8221; Delores Gartside, who manages an art gallery in town, said Rigas twice gave $10,000 to the arts council. He has flipped burgers at town picnics, and has stood many a diner companion a cup of coffee.
Yet at least one detractor says many people dont like the Rigases or their effect on the town. Of those who admitted they are not Rigas fans, none would speak on the record.
To the frugal, the Rigases opulence and waste were disgraceful. Townspeople cite the *#8220;three million [dollar] wedding*#8221; of Rigas daughter, Ellen, several years ago, which *#8220;looked like something out of the Arabian Nights,*#8221; according to one guest.
At the offices of Wending Creek Farms, one of Rigas businesses and part of the family compound east of town, Rigas agreed to an interview one recent afternoon during a recess in the trial. The structure housing the offices is a building everyone in town calls *#8220;one of the barns.*#8221;
It is a barn with brass railings, wide hardwood stairs, plush area rugs and banks of elegant windows. The second floor is all open, with pinkish carpeting thats so deep, it feels as if youre walking on a pillow. The room is appointed in rich, autumn colors, with several clusters of tables and chairs, armchairs and sofas.
Rigas takes the corner of the sofa closest to your chair. He is an elfin 5-foot-6, with pure white hair and a droopy left eye that he hikes his chin upward to see out of.
He has been described as an emotional man. Gartside said she was endeared to him when he cried at a friends funeral. Tears brimmed and his voice wavered when he talked about the hugs and notes of support he has received since his indictment.
*#8220;I dont think the family would have made it through these last two years if it hadnt been for the closeness and support small- town people give each other,*#8221; he said.
Today, Rigas is forbidden to enter any of Adelphias numerous offices in town. *#8220;Ninety percent of the life I had has been changed, he said. No question, its very difficult to go downtown and see people who used to work for me. I miss em dearly.*#8221;
As grand and opulent as Rigas lifestyle became, a wistful guardedness betrays his humble start in life. He grew up living above a Wellsville, N.Y., hot dog shop, which his Greek immigrant parents owned. *#8220;Growing up, selling hot dogs, I got to know the ordinary working guy. A hot dog was all they could afford for the noon meal.*#8221; When he settled in Coudersport in 1951, he bought the town movie theater, which he still owns and which still shows movies. The next year, he bought his first cable enterprise. It was one of the delights I had as CEO of Adelphia that we could give people a reason to come back to the hometown for a good job after college. It was important to their parents and grandparents, he said. Some were people my kids grew up with. Kimberley Hoaks ties to John Rigas are long and deep. A court and police reporter at the Leader-Enterprise, she and her brother, Jeff, were children when they rode to Pirates games in Pittsburgh with Rigas at the wheel. Don Hoak, the Pirates third baseman whose family lived in Coudersport, would give Rigas game tickets to drive his children to see him play in the 50s and early 60s.
Years later, Rigas almost bought the team Hoaks father played on. In 1994, his $85 million bid made him Mayor Tom Murphys choice to own the Pirates. People in Coudersport were elated and celebrated one of those Americana moments: Big news thats good news from a small town. Major League Baseball eventually nixed the deal. It didnt like the preponderance of debt in Rigas offer.
Im still a Pirates fan, Rigas said, and Ive always had affection for Pittsburgh. But maybe people there are thinking, Maybe were lucky we didnt get Mr. Rigas.
Hoak called Rigas at the end of his first week of trial. Hi John, I wanted to call and see how youre doing, she told. Hey, why dont you join us over at the Crit tonight?
Rigas did not show up at the Hotel Crittenden bar that night. He is known for not drinking much more than part of a glass of wine. When he does go into town, he said, I see people on the street and they give me a hug.
Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.