NEW YORK -- In the wildly lavish lifestyle of Adelphia Communications Corp. founder John Rigas's family, a Christmas tree cost as much as $20,000, a prosecutor said at the opening yesterday of the latest financial scandal to reach trial.
Assistant US Attorney Richard Owens used the holiday episode to describe a family run amok, saying "lies and greed" drove them to steal millions of dollars from their business and live in splendor with a company jet at the ready.
Owens said John Rigas once directed that a company jet be used to fly a tree from Pennsylvania to New York City for his daughter, who rejected the tree because of its size, and caused a second tree to be flown out at a total expense of up to $20,000.
"It seems like small potatoes, but it speaks volumes of the intent and attitude of these defendants," Owens told a jury in US District Court in Manhattan.
Defense lawyers, however, portrayed the family as full of love for the company they built and a small Pennsylvania town that benefited from their success, and said any financial irregularities were the fault of company crooks turned government witnesses.
John Rigas's lawyer told the jury it would find "this case is tragic," with the Rigas family in tatters while the company has plans to emerge from bankruptcy with a robust business, a thriving workforce, and satisfied customers.
"This is a case where Adelphia, supposedly looted by these defendants, prospers with a bright future, while John Rigas, 79, has lost all that he built, including his wealth," attorney Peter Fleming Jr. said.
But Owens accused the family of stealing from the nation's fifth-largest cable company without regard to other investors, including pension funds, mutual funds, and people who believed Adelphia was a well-run investment gem.
Owens said the Rigas family stole hundreds of millions of dollars from 1999 until 2002, when the fraud was revealed and the company was forced into bankruptcy reorganization.
He acknowledged that the family was among the pioneers in the cable television industry but said it traded on that goodwill to fool investors, "cooking the books" to make it appear it was investing $1.5 billion when it was not.
"The Rigases used Adelphia as their private piggy bank," Owens said.
He accused John Rigas of making the company pay for expenses as small as massages and said he took $100,000 from the company whenever he wished.
Rigas's son and codefendant, Timothy, then the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer, forced Adelphia to pay $700,000 for his membership in a golf club and later had the company invest $13 million to build a golf course, Owens said.
He said Timothy Rigas once became so enamored of a pair of hotel slippers that he insisted the company pay whatever it must to get them for him -- even when it was learned that the slippers were sold only in bulk.
"So Adelphia bought Tim Rigas 100 pairs of bedroom slippers," Owens told the jury.