Joe Allbritton, 87, DC media, banking giant dies

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm •  Published: December 12, 2012
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McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Joe L. Allbritton, who became one of Washington's most influential men through a media conglomerate of newspapers and television stations and a financial empire that once included Riggs Bank, died Wednesday. He was 87.

He was suffering from heart ailments and died at a hospital in Houston, where he lived, said Frederick J. Ryan Jr., president of Arlington, Va.-based Allbritton Communications Co.

Allbritton's fortune was self-made, beginning with real estate trades and banking investments. By age 33, he was a millionaire, Ryan said.

His media holdings included eight television stations in seven markets, including WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington whose call letters bear his initials. In an era of corporate media ownership, WJLA stood out as a family-owned station. Ryan said it is the largest privately owned ABC affiliate in the country. Its sister station, NewsChannel 8, was the first of its kind — a local all-news cable channel.

He owned the Washington Star from 1974 to 1978 before he was forced to sell the venerable newspaper to Time Inc. to comply with federal regulations governing cross-ownership of media platforms; it folded a few years later.

But decades later Allbritton watched with pride as his son Robert founded one of the successes of the new media era, Politico, a must-read online and print publication for political junkies.

The elder Allbritton was also the principal stockholder in Riggs Bank for more than 20 years, including its final years, which were mired in scandal. Riggs, an old-line Washington institution that provided banking services to large numbers of embassies during his tenure at the helm, got into trouble for concealing suspicious transactions involving former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime was responsible for widespread killings and human rights violations.

Riggs executives, including Allbritton, regularly wrote letters to the late Pinochet soliciting his business.

In 1997, Allbritton wrote to Pinochet: "I am pleased to report the business relationship between Riggs and the Chilean Military is prospering. I am also grateful for our thriving personal friendship, which you have demonstrated through your gracious hospitality and stalwart support of the Riggs. .You have rid Chile from the threat of totalitarian government and an archaic economic system based on state-owned property and centralized planning. We in the United States and the rest of the western hemisphere owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude."

In 2004, federal officials ordered Riggs to pay a then-record $25 million civil fine for alleged violations of money-laundering laws. The following year, Riggs pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to report suspicious transactions involving foreigners, including Pinochet and family members. Riggs also agreed to pay a $16 million criminal fine. A federal judge said the bank had become "a greedy corporate henchman of dictators and their corrupt regimes."

Shortly thereafter the bank, which had hosted the accounts of 23 U.S. presidents and had a prominent location on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, was acquired by Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc.