Joe L. Allbritton, communications giant who led Riggs Bank into disrepute, dies at 87

December 12, 2012

Joe L. Allbritton, a self-made millionaire who built a Washington communications empire and led the once venerable Riggs National Bank as it became embroiled in a massive money-laundering scheme, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Houston. He was 87.

He died of heart ailments, said Frederick J. Ryan Jr., the president of Allbritton Communications and Politico.

The son of a Houston sandwich-shop owner, the hard-charging Mr. Allbritton dealt in real estate, banks and mortuaries until he was drawn to the District by a new challenge: reviving an ailing afternoon newspaper in the nation’s power center.

Mr. Allbritton bought the Washington Star in 1974. He won entry into the District’s elite political circles not only as a media magnate but also as a friend of other Texans who had made their fortunes in the capital, including lobbyist Jack Valenti and Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworksi.

Federal regulations over media ownership forced him to sell the Star just four years after he bought it. But he retained valuable broadcast properties, including the ABC affiliate that soon took his initials (WJLA, Channel 7), and he forged ahead with other enterprises that included NewsChannel 8, one of the country’s first 24-hour local news channels.

In recent years, the company Mr. Allbritton started — now run by his son, Robert — has reshaped the city’s media landscape with the launch of Politico and the short-lived Internet news venture TBD.

The elder Mr. Allbritton was perhaps best known for overseeing Riggs National Bank, marketed as “the most important bank in the most important city in the world,” during its scandal-plagued decline. The bank was eventually forced to pay millions of dollars in fines for hiding assets of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Riggs was Washington’s largest independent bank and its most gilded. Since its founding in 1836, the bank had served 21 presidents and their families and had financed the Mexican-American War and the purchase of Alaska. The bank’s flagship branch sat across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Treasury Department, a geographical metaphor for its proximity to power.

Mr. Allbritton, too, cultivated connections to influence. He entertained presidents at his home in Northwest Washington and hosted an annual brunch (often featuring Texas chili) for boldfaced names from the intersecting worlds of business, finance and media. He collected impressionist paintings and bought a farm in Fauquier County where he indulged his passion for raising thoroughbreds. His horse Hansel won the Preakness and Belmont stakes in 1991.

In 1982, he spent $70 million to acquire a controlling interest in Riggs National Bank. He became chairman and chief executive, and his strategy for the next two decades relied on the bank’s air of exclusivity to woo wealthy clients, particularly foreign governments and their diplomats in Washington.

He traveled the world in the bank’s Gulfstream jet, courting heads of state and wealthy businessmen abroad. He continued to conduct business in lavish style even after shareholders raised questions about the bank’s high overhead costs and tried to force him to sell the jet.

“If the shareholders force me to give up the plane, we’ll just have to lease one,” he told The Washington Post in 1992. “And that will be even more expensive.”

Ten years after he took the helm, Riggs was described by Forbes magazine as “teetering on the brink of insolvency.”

Part of the problem was a nationwide recession that left Riggs burdened with bad real estate loans. But analysts said that a large part of the blame lay with Mr. Allbritton’s decision to largely ignore the growing suburban banking market.

“They thought that getting on airplanes and flying to England was what it was all about,” Rockville-based bank consultant Arnold Danielson told The Post in 2004. “They didn’t recognize that Fairfax County and Montgomery County were where it’s at.”

Saddled with its dismal balance sheet, Riggs was so determined to keep its lucrative foreign clients that it broke the law on their behalf.

Foreign entanglements

“Million-dollar cash deposits, offshore shell corporations, suspicious wire transfers, alterations of account names — all the classic signs of money laundering and foreign corruption made their appearance at Riggs Bank,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who led a 2004 Senate subcommittee inquiry into the bank.

Among the foreign leaders banking at Riggs were dictators with long records of human rights abuses. One of them was Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich country on the west-central coast of Africa.

Riggs had courted the African dictator by promising in a 2001 letter to help “reinforce your reputation for prudent leadership.” Obiang deposited hundreds of millions of dollars with Mr. Allbritton’s bank.

Another Riggs client was Pinochet, accused by human rights groups of killing 3,000 Chileans during his reign as a military dictator from 1973 to 1990.

According to documents unearthed by investigators, Mr. Allbritton personally courted Pinochet’s business during the 1990s, meeting the former Chilean president at least twice. Pinochet sent gifts including a pair of cuff links, several history books and — for Mr. Allbritton’s wife, also a Riggs director — a gemstone box. Mr. Allbritton answered with complimentary letters.

“You have rid Chile from the threat of totalitarian government and an archaic economic system,” Mr. Allbritton wrote to Pinochet in 1997. “We in the United States and the rest of the Western hemisphere owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

While it was legal to bank with current and former dictators, Riggs broke federal law when it attempted to hide their accounts and transactions. The violations had occurred over a period of years but were discovered only after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted investigators to scrutinize the bank’s connections with foreign clients.

After identifying suspicious transactions, federal regulators forced the bank to close its Pinochet accounts.

The bank’s violations did not become widely known until 2004, when the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency levied a record $25 million fine against the bank for failing to report hundreds of millions of dollars of suspicious transactions by overseas clients.

Two months later, Levin’s Senate panel blasted Riggs for its disregard of the law. By then, Mr. Allbritton and his wife had resigned from the bank’s board of directors. They offered no comment.

The bank, already struggling to make a profit, was in crisis — and in July 2004, PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh announced that it would buy Riggs, thereby doing away with an institution that had served Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton and Francis Scott Key.

But Riggs remained responsible for its past. In 2005, the bank pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge related to the Pinochet transactions and paid a $16 million penalty. A federal judge who approved the fine called the bank “a greedy corporate henchman of dictators and their corrupt regimes.”

In another settlement — this one to avoid criminal charges in Spain — the bank paid $8 million to a foundation supporting Pinochet’s victims. Mr. Allbritton paid an additional $1 million from his personal accounts.

His only comments at the time came through a spokesman, who said the Allbritton family was “pleased to be able to help the bank bring an end to this misdirected litigation.”

It was the first time an entity other than the Chilean government had been forced to pay restitution to Pinochet’s victims.

Building an empire

Joe Lewis Allbritton was born Dec. 29, 1924, in D’Lo, Miss., a timber company town. He was the sixth of seven children in a family that moved west during the Depression to Houston, where his father opened a sandwich shop.

Mr. Allbritton served in the Navy and was the star of the debate team at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., from which he graduated in 1949. He received a law degree from Baylor that same year.

But his real interest was business, and he began buying and selling land during a wave of oil-fueled development in and around Houston.

A skilled dealmaker with a knack for good timing, he used the profits to buy and sell banks, eventually becoming chief executive of Houston Citizens Bank and Trust. He later merged that bank with another in Dallas, forming a new bank-holding company. He made $36 million when he sold his stock in that company in 1973.

Mr. Allbritton bought the Washington Star the following year. He later told the Wall Street Journal in a rare interview that he had been “interested in the public-service opportunity, especially in the nation’s capital. It was a chance to help keep the second newspaper alive.”

He cut the Star’s operating loss from $12 million in 1976 to $1.3 million in 1977. But he often clashed over editorial decisions with Jim Bellows, a seasoned editor he had hired to run the newspaper.

Bellows eventually resigned, a move spurred in part by Mr. Allbritton’s attempt — after returning from a dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford — to endorse Ford in a front-page editorial.

“I didn’t say that it was unprofessional and embarrassing to rush from the White House with a front-page endorsement of your host,” Bellows wrote in his 2002 memoir. “I didn’t say that the Beltway crowd and the Sunday morning prophets would eat us alive. . . . I didn’t say that we were already fighting for our credibility and this would just about kill us.”

Another editor, tasked with convincing Mr. Allbritton that a front-page editorial was a bad idea, compared it to lending half his money to a high-risk borrower.

“Now you’re talking my language,” Mr. Allbritton said, according to a 2004 Post story.

In 1978, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Mr. Allbritton could not simultaneously own broadcast properties and a newspaper in the same town.

Selling the Star to Time Inc. helped Mr. Allbritton turn his initial $35 million media investment into $217 million by 1980, more than a sixfold increase in just six years. He repeatedly appeared on Forbes’s list of the wealthiest Americans.

Mr. Allbritton turned over the media group Allbritton Communications to his son in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, he remained a force in Washington philanthropy. He gave hundreds of thousands of dollars for local scholarships, helped George Mason University buy land for its law school and was a trustee of Georgetown University, the National Geographic Society and the Kennedy Center. He also endowed a $9 million art institute at Baylor.

The furor over the Riggs scandal died down quickly, leaving Mr. Allbritton’s reputation largely intact among Washington’s elite. “After that story broke, it just sort of disappeared. From everyone I talked to, it wasn’t a matter of conversation,” said Chuck Conconi, who wrote about local personalities for Washingtonian magazine and for The Post in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I think, in the end, a lot of us have warm feelings about Joe Allbritton,” he said.

Mr. Allbritton made his primary residence in Houston but had homes in Washington and Upperville. In addition to his son, of Washington, survivors include his wife of 45 years, Barbara Jean Balfanz of Houston; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Allbritton said he never forgot what he learned about business in his early career, when — fresh out of law school — he hung out a shingle and started a firm.

“The first month I made money,” Mr. Allbritton said. “The second month I relaxed a little and lost money. I haven’t relaxed since.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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