Attorneys for John J. Rigas plan to poll residents of New York City and central Pennsylvania to see which might provide the friendlier turf for the Adelphia Communications Corp. founder’s criminal trial.
If the polls find a bias against Rigas and his fellow defendants in New York, defense attorneys might seek to move the trial to Williamsport, Pa. That is 97 miles from Adelphia’s home in Coudersport, where Rigas was a hometown hero for decades before his arrest on fraud charges last July. New York is three times farther from Coudersport.
Discussion of the possible move dominated a status conference in the criminal case Thursday, with U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand expressing deep reservations about the idea.
“It’s not that changes in venue are predicated on surveys of popular opinion,” said Sand, who would try the case even if it is moved. “This comes as a surprise. It’s something that I find quite dubious.”
If Rigas and the other defendants request a change of venue, Sand will decide the issue after oral arguments in April. No matter where the trial is held, it is scheduled to begin next Jan. 5.
Federal judicial rules allow trials to be moved from one district to another not only if jurors appear biased in one district, but also for the convenience of defendants. Attorneys for Rigas and the other defendants are considering asking for the change in venue based on both those conditions.
Yet they are not optimistic that the trial will be moved from New York, which is home to the judge, the prosecutors and most of the defense attorneys.
“It’s a long shot,” said Mark J. Mahoney, a Buffalo attorney who represents Michael C. Mulcahey, a former Adelphia executive charged along with Rigas and two of Rigas’ sons, Timothy and Michael.
Ben Preziosi, an attorney for John Rigas, told Sand that defendants are considering seeking the venue change because New York may be a “unique environment.”
“The defendants could be lumped together within the overall category of corporate greed,” Preziosi said.
Nevertheless, Sand wondered whether the Rigas attorneys were simply looking for the friendliest venue, rather than seeking to avoid supposed prejudices.
“There’s a twist here,” Sand said. “Usually moves like this are made when there has been so much local adverse publicity that the defense seeks to move the trial elsewhere. This is to the contrary.”
Sand said he would allow the survey to go forward, adding: “I have grave, grave doubts as to its utility.”
The judge and the Rigas attorneys also sparred about the trial date, which the defense wanted postponed until April 2004.
Christopher J. Clark, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case, called for a trial in September. But attorneys for the Rigases argued that they have schedule conflicts in the fall, and need more time to sift through the millions of documents that could serve as evidence in the case.
“I don’t think there has ever been a case like this,” said Paul Grand, an attorney for Timothy J. Rigas, in arguing for more time before the trial.
Sand said he preferred an earlier trial but could live with the January 2004 date.
The Rigases and Mulcahey are accused of concocting a massive fraud that cost Adelphia, the nation’s sixth-largest cable company, $2.5 billion. Prosecutors say the Rigases used Adelphia as their personal piggy bank, taking money from the company for lavish vacations and other personal uses, while misleading investors about the state of the company’s finances.
The Rigases left Adelphia in May, and the company filed for bankruptcy a month later. Attorneys for the Rigases are concerned that the Bankruptcy Court has frozen assets that the family needs to pay for a full defense, but that issue never came up at Thursday’s hearing.
All three Rigases appeared in Thursday’s hearing. Afterward, John Rigas spoke briefly with reporters, saying that he misses visiting with old colleagues and hopes that Adelphia’s new management keeps its headquarters in Coudersport.
John Rigas has been at odds with Adelphia’s interim management, which spent millions on investigations that, in the view of his attorneys, greatly aided the prosecution’s case. But the former Buffalo Sabres owner said he was happy that Adelphia this week offered its top management jobs to cable industry veterans William Schleyer and Ron Cooper.
“They’ve been in the industry,” Rigas said. “It’s a step forward. I’m very supportive. I’m looking to establish better chemistry between us because the past group has been not too friendly.”