Kiss Me, Katie

Fairy tales can come true. Why, they can even win you an award from Dallas' less-than-vigilant press club.

For four years, Elizabeth Albanese turned one of the most important journalism awards in the Southwest into her own myth-making machine, transforming herself from an obscure and ordinary business writer into the brightest star of the Dallas Press Club. Concocting a series of elaborate stories to hide her deception, Albanese rigged the Katie Awards to win 10 prizes over three years, fooling the working reporters and public relations pros who presided over the contest and counted themselves as her friends. It took a part-time journalist, who uncovered her reckless use of a press club credit card, to unravel Albanese's weird little web. That discovery led to a more important one: For at least three years Albanese had been randomly picking the award winners herself, with all the care and precision of a kid tossing nickels into a fountain.

Perhaps the oddest plot line of Albanese's fairy tale is that for all the time and energy she spent hijacking the nearly 50-year-old journalism contest, it didn't do her much good other than to let her play Cinderella once a year. Her awards didn't buy her prominence or land her a plum reporting job at a major publication. It didn't pay her bills. But for Albanese, the Katies were the necessary props in her imagined life as an acclaimed journalist. In her fantasy world, she had a wealthy husband, a cabin in Colorado and a villa in Greece.

In reality, Albanese was a no-name reporter with a criminal record who wrote dull and forgettable stories on municipal finance. To maintain the charade of her fantasy life, she used her Dallas Press Club credit card to pay for a $1,500 hotel stay in Manhattan and $900 of shopping at Talbots. The rich husband she told her friends about had actually declared bankruptcy in 2003, claiming more than $400,000 in debts.

Elizabeth Albanese with her "rich husband," who actually declared bankruptcy in 2003.
Mark Graham
Elizabeth Albanese with her "rich husband," who actually declared bankruptcy in 2003.
Share the wealth: Jeff Share, a Houston editor, tipped off the press club about Albanese's improbable heist.
Share the wealth: Jeff Share, a Houston editor, tipped off the press club about Albanese's improbable heist.

Tom Stewart, the Dallas Press Club president now entrusted with salvaging the organization, initially told reporters that he had no evidence the last two Katie contests were judged, a startling revelation rendering the nearly 400 trophies handed out over the last two years a mere product of luck. Now, after further investigation, Stewart tells the Dallas Observer that the press club can't find a list of judges for the 2004 Katies, which Albanese co-chaired. As for the 2003 Katie Awards, in which Albanese served as the sole chair, the press club does have a list of judges, but the club's own records indicate that Albanese had access to the judges' selections before the awards were announced, giving her a chance to alter them.

Albanese might still be spinning her version of the fabulous life were it not for Durhl Caussey, a part-time columnist with the Oak Cliff Tribune who once lived in a Salvation Army shelter. Caussey was the first member of the press club to finger Albanese as a fraud, and others followed, demanding that Albanese turn over the list of judges for the Katies. Instead, Albanese resigned in a huff. As she walked away from the press club for the last time after a meeting in March, her friend and fellow board member Meredith Dickenson implored her to turn over the list of the judges.

Albanese looked at her and smiled. "'They'll never get anything from me because I destroyed all my records,'" Dickenson says Albanese told her. "And I swear to God, I felt at that moment that I was dealing with a lunatic, with a psycho. I mean I really started getting damn scared and nervous."

In the grander scheme of things, Albanese was just a small-time scammer. She didn't kill anyone or steal money from a school district or bribe elected officials. The most ironic thing about her con is who she conned.

Journalists, at their most self-congratulatory, consider themselves watchdogs of the powerful. It is their job to root out corruption and collusion, to sniff out the crooks and the scoundrels. But in this case, Albanese fooled them all and, in the process, may have taken down what was once an influential institution.

The first time John Horan Jr. saw Lisa Albanese he was impressed. He had never seen a résumé quite like hers. She claimed to have a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas and an armful of reporting awards and had even been the advisor to a college newspaper, breaking stories on topics that later gained attention in Time and Newsweek. He had to wonder why she was interested in working for his paper, The Northern Virginia Daily. The paper did solid work, but its circulation was just 16,000. A go-getter like Albanese seemed destined for the big-time. But Horan wasn't going to question his luck. He immediately hired the Texan.

With pale skin, blue eyes and long red hair, Albanese was striking, and she quickly made friends. Perhaps her closest friend at the paper was Susan Loving, an editor who usually worked nights and was also single. They often dined together and on weekends went shopping or visited art museums in Washington, D.C. To Loving, Albanese seemed cultured and refined. Most of the other reporters didn't give much thought to how they dressed, but Albanese was different. On one trip to D.C. they stopped at a store that sold designer clothing. Loving had never even been inside; Albanese bought several outfits. "She seemed to come from money," Loving says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help