Obituary: Joe Allbritton / Banker developed D.C. media empire

Dec. 29, 1924 - Dec, 11, 2012

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Joe L. Allbritton, a Texas financier who at age 50 became a television and newspaper baron in Washington, D.C., then climbed the city's social hierarchy as he transformed himself into the foremost banker to Embassy Row, died Tuesday in Houston. He was 87.

The cause was a heart ailment, said Frederick Ryan Jr., the president of Allbritton Communications, which is based in Arlington, Va. Mr. Allbritton lived in Houston in his retirement.

After early success in the banking business in the Southwest, the diminutive Mr. Allbritton -- he stood barely 5 feet tall -- expanded in 1974 with the purchase of The Washington Star, the city's feisty, conservative-leaning No. 2 paper after The Washington Post. The deal included the local ABC television affiliate.

His foray into the Washington publishing scene -- he had never before stepped into a newspaper office -- was short-lived. In 1978, he was forced to sell The Star after the Federal Communications Commission barred common ownership of broadcast and newspaper properties in the same market. (The buyer was Time Inc., which closed the paper in 1981.)

But keeping the TV station, WMAL, proved a bonanza. It became highly profitable as WJLA -- he changed the call letters, using his initials -- and it was the foundation of Allbritton Communications, which today has TV outlets in Harrisburg; Little Rock, Ark.; and a half-dozen other cities, as well as other media properties.

His son, Robert, now heads the company and in 2007 founded Politico, the news website and newspaper devoted to politics.

Briefly retired after selling The Star, Mr. Allbritton found himself bored and decided to return to banking.

A friend invited him to invest in the venerable Riggs National Bank, Washington's biggest financial institution and one with a rich history. It had provided financing for Samuel F.B. Morse's telegraph and the gold used to purchase Alaska. Some two dozen presidential families had banked there. Mr. Allbritton wound up with a 40 percent controlling interest.

Riggs became his fief, its board larded with relatives and friends, and the vehicle for his frequent travels to exploit his top-level foreign connections, including a close one with Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator.

Mr. Allbritton transformed Riggs from a traditional deposit-and-loan institution into a niche asset manager and private banker to the carriage trade. It boasted of being "the most important bank in the most important city in the world."

Its fortunes waned, however, as competition increased and Riggs became enmeshed in money-laundering investigations. One resulted in a $25 million fine for what the authorities called "willful and systemic" violations of laws governing cash reporting. Federal regulators said the bank had failed to actively monitor transfers through Saudi Arabian and Equatorial Guinean accounts, which were considered possible conduits for terrorist funds or the proceeds of graft.

Mr. Allbritton refused numerous offers to buy Riggs, but under pressure from an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission involving oil money from Equatorial Guinea, he succumbed and sold the bank in 2005 to PNC Corp.

Joe Lewis Allbritton was born in D'Lo, Miss., near Jackson, on Dec. 29, 1924, to Lewis A. Allbritton and the former Ada Carpenter. As a youngster during the Depression he stirred orange juice for $1 a day at a local bottling plant. While in junior high school he moved with his parents to Houston, where he worked after school each day in the cafe opened by his father. In high school he was a champion debater. He left Baylor University after a year to serve in the Navy from 1943 to 1946.

Mr. Allbritton returned to take a law degree at Baylor and opened a small office, but after a few years he discovered that he did not like what he called "the environment of practicing law" and gravitated toward business.

He made a killing in real estate selling land for a freeway between Houston and Galveston. He then organized and ran the San Jacinto Savings and Loan. Within 15 years he had acquired and merged his way to Texas banking eminence as the biggest shareholder in First International Bancshares of Dallas.

His reach extended as far as Los Angeles, where he acquired Pierce National Life Insurance and Pierce Brothers, a regional chain of 60 funeral homes, the largest in the area.

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