Joe L. Allbritton, the millionaire founder of Politico's parent company, died Wednesday of heart ailments in a Houston hospital. He was 87.
The founder of Allbritton Communications, which launched Politico and owns several television stations, built the Washington, D.C.-based media empire after controversy-fraught years as the chief of Riggs National Bank.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Texas, Allbritton was a self-made businessman, who dabbled in real estate, mortuaries and banking before entering the news business in 1974, when he purchased the struggling Washington Star newspaper.
He revived the paper. Six years later, federal regulations regarding cross ownership of newspaper and television stations forced him to sell his $35 million investment. Time Inc. bought it for $217 million.
Allbritton held on to his more lucrative media properties, including WJLA, an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. that took his initials, and helped launch NewsChannel 8, also in Washington, one of the country's first 24-hour news channels.
The company he founded, which is now run by his son, Robert, has made inroads into the internet world — founding Politico in 2007 and TBD, a short-lived internet news site that the company shuttered in 2012. Though Politico is his son's creation, the elder Allbritton bankrolled the publication and has been accused of excessively involving himself in its editorial affairs.
But, for all of Allbritton's successes and wealth, his career was marred by a nationwide recession in the early 1990s that Forbes magazine said brought the bank to the brink of insolvency.
The economic slump left Riggs with bad loans on drastically devalued real estate, but Allbritton was also blamed by analysts for ignoring the growing suburban banking market which took business away from Riggs.
Despite these woes, he refused to give up his private jet at Riggs, even as shareholders urged him to sell the Gulfstream.
He was also criticized for his eagerness to do business with some shady customers
He personally courted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whom human rights groups accuse of killing more than 3,000 of his own citizens during his 17-year reign.
And — in a 2001 letter to Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the dictator of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea — Allbritton praised the west African strongman's "reputation for prudent leadership." Obiang deposited hundreds of millions of dollars in banks controlled by Allbritton.
But little of this criticism appeared in Politico's glowing, three-page obituary on its financier.
The piece, bylined by editor-in-chief John F. Harris and reporter James Hohmann, makes a brief, passing mention of a federal inquiry into Allbritton's dealings with Pinochet. There is no mention of Obiang.
The man, whom the Washington Post noted — in the headline of its obituary — led once-venerable Riggs to "disrepute" is praised by Politico with a laundry list of accomplishments.
"He would wear Politico baseball caps and T-shirts while playing with his grandchildren. Sometimes, he would quiz executives at the company on business and editorial matters, sometimes pretending caustically to second-guess their decisions," Harris and Hohmann wrote of the former boss. "It took the publisher, adept at reading his father’s sense of humor, to assure people that he was just kidding; his main involvement in the new publication was as cheerleader."
It wasn't the only time Allbritton was accused of involving himself in Politico's coverage.
In 2007, five months after the news agency's christening, Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist at Salon, accused Politico of having a conservative bias, pointing to Allbritton's appointment of Frederick J. Ryan Jr., a one-time assistant to President Ronald Reagan, as president and CEO of Politico.
"There is nothing wrong per se with hard-core political operatives running a news organization. Long-time Republican strategist Roger Ailes oversees Fox News, of course," Greenwald wrote. "But it seems rather self-evident that a news organization run by someone with such clear-cut political biases ought to have a hard time holding itself out as some sort of politically unbiased source of news."