Joe L. Albritton, the longtime chairman and chief executive at Riggs National Bank in Washington, died of heart failure Wednesday in a Houston hospital, according to the Washington Post. He was 87.
Albritton acquired a majority stake in Riggs in 1982 and ran the venerable bank for more than two decades until he was forced to resign after regulators uncovered a money-laundering scheme in which the bank was found to be hiding assets for such foreign dictators as Chile's Augusto Pinochet and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema. In 2004 it was fined $25 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for failing to file suspicious activity reports for overseas clients and in July of that year the bank, which once boasted of serving presidents and financing the Mexican-American War and the purchase of Alaska, announced it was selling itself to PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh.
According to the Post, Albritton bought and sold a number of banks in Texas and pocketed $36 million in 1973 when he sold his shares in Houston Citizens Bank & Trust. A year later he bought the former Washington Star newspaper and soon after bought a controlling stake in a Washington television station that his family-run company, Albritton Communications, still owns.
At Riggs, Albritton focused on courting wealthy clients, both locally and overseas, and often traveled on the bank-owned jet to woo heads of states. According to the Post, Nguema deposited hundreds of millions of dollars in Riggs in 2001 and Pinochet opened multiple accounts at the bank during the 1990s after being courted by Albritton.
Despite presiding over Riggs' decline, Albritton remained one of the Washington region's most generous philanthropists. His media company also expanded its empire in 2007 when it founded the political newspaper Politico.
Albritton is survived by his wife, Barbara Jean Balfanz, his son, Robert, and two grandchildren.