Joe L. Allbritton, who became one of Washington's most influential men through a media conglomerate that included 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.
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.
He owned the Washington Star for several years in the 1970s and his son Robert founded one of the successes of the new media era, Politico, a must-read online and print publication for political junkies.
Allbritton also owned 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. In 2004, Riggs was ordered to pay a then-record $25 million fine for alleged violations of money-laundering laws. Shortly thereafter the bank, which had a prominent location on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, was acquired by PNC Financial Services Group Inc.
He was a fixture on the D.C. social circuit and good friends with Prince Charles. Jerry Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications Co., 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 and George Mason universities. 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.
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."
By MATTHEW BARAKAT Associated Press
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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