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.
Allbritton stepped down as Riggs CEO in 2001; at the time, the Allbritton family controlled roughly 40 percent of the bank's stock.
Former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, an Allbritton friend who served on the Riggs board, said Allbritton was "a 20th century banker in that he had relationships with all of his major clients. He loved working with the ambassadorial community and being a player on the world stage." That style was not as well-suited for the changes that gripped modern banking, as community banks were getting squeezed out and federal regulators demanded greater transparency.
He was a fixture on the D.C. social circuit, though he rarely gave interviews. He was friends with Britain's Prince Charles and was reportedly invited to the wedding last year of Prince William and Kate Middleton. When Prince Charles visited the U.S. in May 2011, he traveled on a private jet lent to him by Allbritton.
He and his wife Barbara socialized with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and their wives.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement, "Ronnie and I considered Joe and his wife, Barby, to be dear friends and I will miss his great sense of humor."
For all his Washington ties, Trachtenberg said Allbritton was a longtime Texan with a distinctive drawl whose ties to his home state were apparent "every time he opened his mouth."
"His life in Texas was separate altogether. Texas is where the Christmas cards came from," Trachtenberg said. "He was a nice man with old-fashioned good manners."
Jerry Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, who worked for Allbritton's companies for 25 years, described him as "one of the great raconteurs."
His philanthropic efforts were extensive, including large gifts to Baylor University in Texas and George Mason University in northern Virginia. He was heavily involved in horse racing and owned the thoroughbred Hansel, which won the final two legs of the Triple Crown in 1991.
At the height of his influence "if there was something important happening in D.C, Joe Allbritton was involved, right in the center of it," Fritz said.
He was born in D'Lo, Miss., and raised in Houston. He served in the Navy during World War II and received a law degree from Baylor. He went on to run funeral- home and insurance businesses as well as to sit on various arts and university boards.
Allbritton's family said in a statement that his life "was defined by a love, wit, charm and attentiveness that will be forever cherished by all of us. Joe's life was also one of great achievement, as a businessman, innovator and philanthropist. He was fiercely passionate and unfailingly generous."