Saturday, July 10, 2004

Accounting Scandals: the Buffalo version

I noted that former Enron whiz Ken Lay was indicted the other day, at long last; I've seen less mention in Blogistan on the verdicts handed down the other day against Adelphia Cable's John and Timothy Rigas. This is the one that hit Buffalo hard.

It wasn't just that John Rigas was, for a time, the owner of the NHL Buffalo Sabres, although that was his highest profile role here. Far worse was the way the Adelphia Corporation was for a time "the next silver bullet" for Buffalo's economy. They were the big company that was sinking roots here; they were the ones expanding quickly, promising to build a sparkling corporate headquarters in downtown Buffalo that would create hundreds of new jobs in the burgeoning tech industry. None of that happened. No ground was ever even broken for the building, and once the dust settled from Adelphia's bankruptcy proceedings, the new corporate HQ site was chosen -- in Denver. So many hopes in this suffering city were tied to Adelphia -- and, by extension, to the Rigases. And like so many hopes that have gone before, and some that have come since, they are mere memories now of what might have been as Buffalo just keeps limping along.

I actually met both John Rigas and his wife, when I was working in the restaurant business. His wife -- whose first name I don't recall -- ran a furniture store in the town where I managed a Pizza Hut, and she often came in for her lunch of an order of breadsticks and a Diet Pepsi. She quickly attracted a reputation amongst us, since she insisted that both items be absolutely fresh upon her arrival: she had to physically witness us removing the breadsticks from the oven, and pouring the Diet Pepsi from the fountain. One time I actually saw her through the windows as she approached the door, and I cut her breadsticks at that moment -- but before she actually entered. She opted to wait ten minutes for the next batch. Funny thing was, this went on for months with none of us having any idea who she was other than "the cranky Fresh Breadstick lady".

But then one fall evening she stopped in and flagged down another shift manager, whereupon she told him that she appreciated all our efforts to give her exactly what she wanted, and she wanted to reciprocate by giving each of us tickets to either a Sabres game in her executive suite at Marine Midland Arena (now HSBC Arena) or to a Bills game in her suite at Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium). That's when we found out that she was Mrs. John Rigas. No, I didn't turn down her generosity; thus I got to see the Bills get beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars to close out the home portion of their forgettable 1997 season.

A year or so later, I was working for another restaurant when John Rigas and his wife came in for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I pointed out to my crew who he was, and one of my employees -- a super nice young high school student who was just loaded with potential (geez, he's probably out of college now) -- actually got Mr. Rigas's autograph. I wonder if he still has it.

So now it turns out that I have a personal connection, tenuous as it is, to what I once thought was Buffalo's future and instead turned out to be an infamous part of its history. And the missed opportunities continue to mount. I'm saddened by what John Rigas did, and I'm glad that justice prevailed, but I'm also saddened at the idea of him sitting in a prison cell. He's an old man who once built something from nothing, kept reaching beyond his grasp, and then somehow managed to end up with nothing in the end. I'm left to consider anew the strange belief we have that justice should somehow be satisfying, when it so rarely is.

I left that Pizza Hut more than six years ago, and I've often wondered if Mrs. Rigas still goes there. Somehow I doubt it, but now that her husband is a convicted felon, well -- to paraphrase Rick Blaine, "We'll always have breadsticks."

And we'll always have Buffalo.

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