NEW YORK -- John Rigas, who turned a $300 investment a half-century ago into cable behemoth Adelphia Communications Corp., was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday for his role in the looting and debt-hiding scandal that pummeled the company into bankruptcy.
Rigas's son Timothy, 49, who like his father was convicted last year of bank fraud, securities fraud, and conspiracy, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The sentences are among the harshest handed down in any US court since the fall of Enron in 2001 touched off a rash of corporate scandals that rocked the markets and have cost investors billions of dollars.
Raising the possibility that the frail, 80-year-old Rigas could die behind bars, US District Judge Leonard Sand said the sentence might be cut short if Rigas serves at least two years and prison doctors believe he has less than three months to live.
''This is a tragedy lacking in heroes," the judge said.
Adelphia prosecutors had accused the Rigases of using complicated cash-management systems to spread money around to various family-owned entities and as a cover for stealing about $100 million for themselves.
They were accused of spending the money on a lengthy list of personal luxuries. Prosecutors said John Rigas had ordered two Christmas trees flown to New York for his daughter at a cost of $6,000, ordered as many as 17 company cars and had the company buy 3,600 acres of timberland -- for $26 million -- to preserve the view outside his Pennsylvania home.
Worse still for investors, the company collapsed into bankruptcy in 2002 after it disclosed a staggering $2.3 billion in off-balance-sheet debt that prosecutors said was deliberately hidden by the Rigases.
''Our intentions were good. The results were not," Timothy Rigas told the judge.
Adelphia, founded by John Rigas in tiny Coudersport, Pa., and the lifeblood of that town for 50 years, now operates under bankruptcy protection in Greenwood Village, Colo. The nation's fifth-largest cable company, Adelphia has more than 5 million customers in 31 states and Puerto Rico. According to the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, Adelphia cable franchises serve about 135,000 homes in 36 Massachusetts cities and towns, including clusters in southern Plymouth County, Martha's Vineyard, and Berkshire County areas.
Sand declined to force the two men to pay restitution, noting the family has already agreed to forfeit more than $1.5 billion to settle regulatory charges.
At the most dramatic moment of a hearing that stretched nearly three hours, John Rigas slowly rose from his chair just before being sentenced, shuffled to a lectern and addressed the judge, speaking slowly and softly.
''In my heart and in my conscience, I'll go to my grave really and truly believing that I did nothing but try to improve the conditions of my employees," he said.
''If I did anything wrong, I apologize."