By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But it wasn't until February, more than three months after the awards show, that Jeff Share, an editor from Houston, fired off an angry letter to Rand LaVonn, the president of the Press Club Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees the press club. The e-mail criticized Albanese's repeated victories.
By that time, LaVonn had already asked Albanese twice for a list of the judges. Each time, Albanese had promised to get back to him. Now with the e-mail in hand, LaVonn realized he would have to confront Albanese. The credibility of their organization had been brought into question.
Albanese also had other problems. In November she had tapped a man named Durhl Caussey to head the club's finance committee. It would prove to be her biggest mistake.
Caussey hardly seemed the type to sniff Albanese out. He was no ace reporter; in fact, he had come into journalism by accident. A former school board president and one-time high school principal, Caussey had endured a painful divorce in the early 1990s, lost his job and nearly gave up on life. Almost overnight he found himself driving a taxi and living out of the back seat. When he'd watch his son play high school baseball, he made sure to park his cab far away from the field.
Sometimes, he slept outside nestled along the tall grass by the railroad tracks. Other times, he lived in a rented room at the Salvation Army. Then in the late 1990s, he fell in love, cleaned up his life and took a teaching job at DISD.
Eventually he met a woman named Jo Ann Holt. It was Holt, a public relations pro, who encouraged Caussey's natural talent as a writer (today he is a syndicated columnist with a devoted following) and introduced him to the press club.
A self-effacing country boy of 60, with a sturdy build and a mop of thick gray hair, Caussey begins many of his sentences with the disclaimer, "I may not be that smart..." To Albanese, he may have seemed the perfect candidate to put in charge of the press club's finances.
In February, while LaVonn was getting ready to confront Albanese about the judges, Albanese asked Caussey to pick up the club's financial records from its former bookkeeper, a man named Mac Duvall. A few weeks earlier, Albanese had talked to the board about firing Duvall, who had handled the club's books for 30 years. According to Albanese, Duvall had failed to keep the board updated and had not paid the club's bills on time.
Caussey, like the rest of the board, had no reason to doubt Albanese. On February 26, he drove to the bookkeeper's office in Garland, ready to give him a tongue lashing for letting the club down. When Caussey arrived, Duvall calmly directed him to a huge stack of records. There Caussey discovered hundreds of e-mails Duvall had sent to Albanese about the club's finances. These records had never been shown to the rest of the board. That wasn't all. Duvall also had records detailing Albanese's use of a press club credit card.
Caussey could not believe what he was seeing. For months, Albanese had been using the credit card for personal expenses. As he reviewed the expenses she had racked up, he began trembling with anger. They read like a diary of frivolity.
On February 8, 2006, she spent $447.43 at the Renaissance Hotel. On March 11, 2006, she charged $378.88 at Talbots Clothing and then returned to the same retailer a month later to spend an additional $549.91. In the months of May and June, she billed $733.46 at Saks Fifth Avenue.
But it was Albanese's use of the card for travel-related expenses that was particularly brazen. In March, she used the club's card to pay for an $860.89 stay at the Tuscany Hotel in New York, where The Bond Buyer is located. In one week in June, she used the card to pay for a $215.99 hotel room at the Marriott in San Antonio and another, presumably more luxurious, $449.83 hotel room at the Hilton in Austin. On October 10, Albanese spent $744.19 with Delta Air Lines, and although her bills don't indicate where she flew, on October 12, she used the card to pay for a room at the Staybridge Suites in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
In December, one month after her victorious evening at the Katie Awards, she had used the card to pay for a $1,570.82 room at the W Hotels in New York. All told, she had racked up $10,000 in personal expenses.
Caussey was stunned. He had considered Albanese a trusted friend. He had dined at her home. He had met her husband and father. Now he felt betrayed.
So furious he was trembling, Caussey called Albanese and demanded an explanation. She coolly admitted she had made a mistake in judgment, but she had paid it all back, she insisted. Caussey didn't know what to believe. The records in front of him indicated she still owed the club $3,000. A meeting was scheduled for March 13 at the Women's Museum at Fair Park, where the press club had its offices. As head of the finance committee, Caussey would brief the rest of the club about what he had found. He alerted a few members to what was going on. At the same time, Albanese was contacting her defenders on the board to prepare them for what lay in store. The showdown was set.