Kiss Me, Katie
Elizabeth Albanese sat near the front of the massive ballroom, sipping champagne. The 43-year-old loved champagne. In social settings such as this one, it was all she drank. It was part of the image she sought to cultivate, that of a genteel Southern lady. The same could be said of the pantyhose and the red lipstick and the kitten heels she wore. Co-workers had never even seen her in a pair of slacks.
True, she had lost some of her figure. The long, willowy neck had filled out, and her arms had gone a bit fleshy, but she was still what she had always been: a pretty little redhead who knew how to work it. And tonight she was working it—the Texas-sized smile, the easy charm, a shawl over her freckled shoulders and a green dress that showed just enough cleavage. She had spent $3,500 on the dress, and it was worth every penny. The truth was, friends would later say, she looked better than anyone in the room.
And she should have. In the hours before the evening's gala, while two of her underlings scurried to ready the ballroom, she had been upstairs in her master suite, having her hair and nails done. In a few minutes, she would take the stage, and all eyes would be on her.
Dallas Press Club
Albanese was destined for a moment like this. A college graduate at the age of 16, she had earned a law degree from Harvard and spent a few years at an important Washington, D.C., law firm before turning her attention to journalism. As a reporter, she had purportedly written for The New York Times and covered big stories for CNN, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Now she was Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a tiny trade publication based in New York. She was also president of the Dallas Press Club, a dying institution but one with a rich history and one that gave her access to some of the city's titans.
She looked around the room. It was packed with television reporters, newspaper writers and public relations professionals. The men wore suits and tuxedos, the women designer dresses and sparkling ball gowns. In the Dallas media world, there was no bigger night. For months, Albanese and the rest of the Dallas Press Club had been preparing for this event, the 2006 Katie Awards.
They had spared no expense. The ballroom, with its soaring ceilings and 30,000 square feet of floor space, was one of the largest meeting rooms in Dallas and the centerpiece of the historic Hyatt Regency. The press club couldn't have picked a better spot for its signature event.
Tonight, the winners would receive a gold statuette, a female knock-off of the Oscar trophy. The Katies were considered one of the most prestigious journalism awards in the Southwest, and every year the contest drew thousands of entrants from across a six-state region. The statues sat on a table near the front of the room, stacked one atop the other in the shape of a wedding cake. It would take hours to hand them all out.
As president of the press club, Albanese had a substantial part in the program. In a moment, her face would fill the two giant TV screens hanging above the stage. All told, the evening would cost the press club more than $100,000. Albanese would be the center of attention.
As the evening wore on, it became clear to those seated at her table that the night was more than just her creation: It was her coronation. Not only did she have several speaking roles as club president, she also won four awards, more than anyone else in the room. She even won the coveted Best Investigative News Story award for a portfolio of stories on tobacco litigation, beating a team of Dallas Morning News writers who had written a series that would lead to the indictments of several Dallas Independent School District officials. "She would go up there and get her award and come back and kind of smile, like, 'Oh, here I am again,'" says Jo Ann Holt, who sat next to Albanese that night. "I thought to myself: 'This is to the point of getting ridiculous. You know, you shouldn't enter that many categories. How does this look to other people?'"
Privately, a number of journalists were seething. At one table, a group of veteran Dallas Morning News reporters were joking that if they wanted to win awards in the future, they had better get a job at The Bond Buyer. At another table, an editor with Houston's Pipeline & Gas Journal swore he would never again enter the contest. "How does the press club allow its officers to submit their own entries?" he wondered. To him, the whole thing stunk.
When it was over, Albanese invited a select group up to her private suite. Prominently displayed at the entrance were her four Katie awards. Into the wee hours of the morning, she entertained her guests, drinking champagne and eating grapes.
"She was the Cinderella of the night," Holt says. "And she got to ride the carriage for a couple hours. And then it all came crashing down."
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.
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.
Albanese told people at the paper that her mother had been a fashion model in New York and her father had worked as an assistant manager at the glamorous Plaza Hotel, where the family lived for some time. One sister was an opera singer at Juilliard, another was a trainer for the Dallas Mavericks. It seemed like something out of a movie.
From February through May 1994, Albanese worked at the paper without incident. She met deadlines and was accurate in her reporting. Horan did have some suspicions about her larger-than-life stories—and a bookkeeper had pointed out that the birth date on her driver's license had been altered—but he didn't have any reason to be concerned.
That changed later that month, when Albanese was arrested for writing a bad check for a used car in the amount of $783.75. The day the case was to be heard, Albanese's attorney came into the Shenandoah County Courthouse with a certified check to pay for the car, but it was too late; when the felony charge was entered into the state's criminal system it was discovered that Lisa Jeanne Albanese was wanted in Texas for violating probation she received on a charge of stealing two airplane tickets.
Albanese was arrested and booked in the Shenandoah County jail. During a telephone interview with a reporter from her paper, she said the arrest was a case of mistaken identity.
"I have asked them to prove they have the right person," she said. "It's kind of like being blind. I don't know what's going on up here. My main concern is getting home and getting this straightened out. Obviously at some point I'm going to have to go home and find out if this is something to do with me."
During an extradition hearing, Albanese finally admitted that she was indeed the woman being sought by Texas authorities.
While still in jail, Albanese asked Loving to go to her apartment to fetch her diabetes medication. Loving went but could never find the medication.
"By that time," Horan says, "I knew there was no medication."
Albanese was not heard from again until a few years later, when a former boyfriend called the paper. He said he had been engaged to Albanese and that she had maxed out his credit cards and left him in financial ruin. At one point, she had told him she was flying to Oklahoma City to cover the bombings there for CNN, when in reality she was flying home to Houston for a probation hearing.
Shortly after that phone call, Horan sat down to write a letter. Dated February 22, 1996, its intent was to warn anyone who came into contact with Albanese that she was a fraud. She didn't have a kidney transplant, and she had never graduated from college, and she had never lived at the Plaza Hotel. Her mother, who had visited Horan after Albanese's arrest, was certainly no fashion model. They were a working-class family from La Porte, Texas.
"Most, if not all, of what [Albanese] said...was untrue," Horan wrote. He filed the letter away. For 10 years it would remain untouched.
By the time Albanese arrived in Dallas, she was a different person. Literally. Her name was now Elizabeth, and besides the University of Texas degree on her résumé, she had now added a Harvard law degree. In 2000, she married a wealthy businessman named David Johnson. She later told friends she met him through a freelance job for D magazine for which she had to date three men for an article and that the last one she met was the man she had married. Also in 2000, the couple bought a $300,000 house in a gated community in Trophy Club. Her kids, she told friends, went to a private school.
"She dressed like a Dallas-Fort Worth housewife," says one friend. "Little skirts with little sweater sets and little summer dresses and little kitten heels and handbags that she wore on her arm.
"She considered herself a very attractive woman. She was very comfortable with her looks. She loved to show off her cleavage, which I thought was a bit much."
At work, she was well-respected and well-paid—$80,000 a year, she told friends. In the seven years she worked at The Bond Buyer, there were never complaints about her accuracy.
"I never heard anybody tell me that something she wrote wasn't right," says Jim Watts, who worked under Albanese.
If she had one fault, it was her lack of organization. "She was in a constant state of frenzy," one co-worker says. "But she did so much you could forgive her."
She usually picked up the tab at business lunches, where she often entertained colleagues with the stories of her extraordinary life. She had been a University of Texas cheerleader, she had been married to a Greek basketball player who died in a car accident, and she had worked as a stringer for CNN during the first Gulf War. When asked why she had given up practicing law for a career in journalism, she said she wanted more time to be with her family.
"It wasn't like she sat down and told a whole fabulous fake story of her life in one sitting," says Dickenson, who served at the press club with Albanese and became her friend. "It was little things here, little things there. If you sat down and added it all up, it was incredible, but it was always in the realm of possibility."
The first time they ever talked, Albanese called Dickenson to ask her to help set up an event for the press club. Ralph Nader was coming to Dallas, and the club needed a venue to host him. Albanese wondered if Dickenson, who was director of communications at Southern Methodist University, could find a room at the school where Nader could speak. Dickenson, who had just joined the press club, was recovering from breast cancer and told Albanese she had just had chemotherapy and wouldn't be able to help her at the moment. Albanese didn't miss a beat.
"She just blithely said to me, 'Oh, I had bone cancer, everything will be OK. Look at me today; I'm fine and walking around. So listen, this thing with Ralph Nader...' She went right back to it," Dickenson says. "I thought to myself, 'Well gosh, she won't take no for an answer, and who am I? I mean, God, she had bone cancer twice, and she's still doing stuff.' She kind of made me feel guilty. So, of course, I did it."
Albanese and Dickenson would become friends; in fact, Dickenson was perhaps Albanese's closest friend at the club. Dickenson dined with her every few weeks, visited her home and met her father, whom Albanese said was living with her as he died of cancer. Dickenson says she grew to admire Albanese. She thought she was charming, generous and fun. "I thought she was very intelligent, sophisticated in some ways—you could talk to her about stuff going on in the news, she was well-read about politics, knowledgeable about journalism."
Albanese told Dickenson she was born in Ireland and that as a child she moved to New York, where her father ran a restaurant. In her youth she was diagnosed with bone cancer and so the family had moved to Houston so Albanese could get treatments at a specialized hospital. She had grown up in Houston, where her father ran a car dealership.
This much about Albanese can be verified: According to her birth certificate, she was born in White Plains, New York, in 1963 as Lisa Jeanne Albanese. Before taking her job at The Northern Virginia Daily, she had lived in La Porte, a refinery town near Houston, with her family. A neighbor who lived across the street from the Albanese family says she heard they had come to Texas from New York or Chicago and that they were rumored to be in the witness protection program.
Another longtime resident of La Porte says she knew Albanese's father and that he worked in a car dealership in town. She said it had been years since anyone from the family had lived in La Porte. The only high school in the town of 20,000 has no record of a Lisa Jeane Albanese ever graduating.
According to her résumé, she began her journalism career at the Austin-American Statesman in 1984 at age 21. After a short stint as a sergeant-at-arms at the Texas State House of Representatives, she took a job at The Clear Lake Citizen, where she says she covered NASA. Then, in 1989, she became a graduate advisor to the newspaper at The University of Houston at Clear Lake, where she said she regularly scooped the Houston Chronicle. She left that job for a position at a travel agency and then, after a year at the University of Texas pursuing a master's degree in journalism, she got on at The Northern Virginia Daily.
"Much of her résumé was puffed considerably," Horan, the paper's editor, would later write. "...She had never graduated from any college."
The truth is, many of the people Albanese met in Dallas, who considered themselves her friends, never really knew her. They didn't know, for example, that her husband had declared bankruptcy in 2003, listing among his debts a $526 health club bill. They didn't know that she never attended Harvard Law School. They certainly didn't know she had a criminal record. Most of all, Albanese's close circle of friends and colleagues didn't know that just about every larger-than-life tale she told about herself obscured the troubling details of her real life.
"Her stories were so big," says her former friend Jo Ann Holt, "that they were somehow more believable."
That Saturday evening in November may have been Elizabeth Albanese's greatest triumph as a reporter, but as she flashed her pretty smile and sashayed across the stage at the Hyatt Regency, collecting four coveted Katie Awards, she was also unwittingly scripting the end of her Cinderella story.
Immediately after the awards show, journalists from across the state began gossiping about Albanese's improbable night. The following Monday, reporters at the Morning News exchanged e-mails about Albanese, whom they sarcastically referred to as the best journalist in the state. A reporter with the Fort Worth Weekly, who had once worked at U.S. News and World Report, even went so far as to ask Albanese for a copy of one of her winning entries that he couldn't locate online. Albanese never got back to him.
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.
At the meeting, Caussey was meticulous to the point of irritation: He copied Albanese's credit card transactions for everyone present. Albanese defenders were indignant. One suggested he had fabricated the records, another stood and angrily pounded the table, accusing Caussey of ambushing their leader. Another board member started to cry.
But Albanese seemed unmoved. She calmly defended herself, at times even appearing flippant. She had merely confused her personal credit card with her press card, she said. Claiming she was under a lot of pressure at work, she offered to resign. Several board members, unswayed by the evidence before them, pleaded with her to reconsider her decision, while others flipped through her credit card records incredulously, alerting each other to each outlandish purchase. Then, LaVonn stepped in.
For weeks now, LaVonn had been politely asking Albanese about the judges for the Katie Awards, and each time she failed to get back to him. Now with her credibility in doubt, LaVonn had the perfect opportunity to find out once and for all about the legitimacy of the 2006 Katie Awards.
His request was direct and simple: "Please identify the judges for the 2006 Katie Awards and provide proof."
Albanese said that she couldn't remember who the judges were. "Oh, my God," Caussey remembers thinking. "You can't name a single judge." After Tom Stewart, her ultimate successor, finally asked her to respond to LaVonn's request, Albanese promised to get the board a list of shipping labels to which the Katie entries had been sent.
Albanese walked out of the meeting with Dickenson, who had served as her co-chair for the Katie Awards the last two years. That's when Albanese told Dickenson she had destroyed the list of the judges and that she had no intention of providing the board with any information on the judging, smiling as she announced her vow. Dickenson pleaded with her to "stop playing games." "C'mon, Elizabeth," she said. "Let's just give them the damn judges."
Over the next few days, Dickenson called Albanese every day about the Katie judges. Each time, Albanese offered an odd excuse why she couldn't track them down. Her husband had the labels, and he was out of town, she told Dickenson. She couldn't call him because when he traveled on business they didn't talk. Another time, Albanese said that the records were on a laptop she had replaced without transferring her files. When Dickenson pressed her for more information Albanese would say she had to take another call.
Dickenson started to panic. Was Albanese merely disorganized? Was she angry at the foundation and just trying to spite them? Or was it something worse: Had she rigged the Katies to win more awards?
Finally, after three days of pestering Albanese for the list of judges, Dickenson says she realized her friend was a liar. She sat down to write her an e-mail.
"I am very worried that every time I speak to you about your progress on tracking those labels, you give me a new answer on how it can't be done. But I know that is nonsense. If I were in your shoes I'd move heaven and earth to find those records," she wrote. "I don't know if you're playing a game or what, but it has to stop."
Albanese replied a few hours later. In a shifting, rambling e-mail, she wrote that she was reluctant to turn over the list of judges because the Press Club Foundation wanted to take over the Katie Awards. She said there was nothing to gain by releasing the list of Katie judges and that any questions about the contest would only sully "the brand."
"We have both worked so hard on the Katie Awards, and it is a crying shame that there appears to be a witch hunt going on over this," she wrote. "I am not willing to have my integrity attacked. I have put too much time, money and energy into this endeavor, and I will not accept it."
Other board members attacked Dickenson and others for questioning Albanese.
"Wasn't the ambush and resignation enough?" wrote Bob Morrison, news and radio director at USA Radio Network, in an e-mail to his colleagues on the club's board. "You've done enough. Have you no decency?"
It took a month, but slowly the story began trickling into the press. On April 14, Dallas Business Journal reported that press club leaders couldn't identify a single judge for the November contest. After the story became fodder for local media blogs, the Morning News reported that Albanese had a record of mental illness and delusional behavior. She also had a criminal background under the name Lisa Albanese.
At first, Albanese told the Morning News that she was the victim of mistaken identity. "I don't know what you're talking about," she told the paper. "These are odd questions."
An hour later, however, she called back and acknowledged that Lisa and Elizabeth Albanese were one and the same.
"I did have some problems when I was a kid in Virginia," she said.
Although Albanese ultimately turned over her list of people and organizations that judged the 2006 Katie Awards, the press club says that they don't believe any of them took part in the Katies. When Stewart called one of the numbers for a supposed judge, someone at a hospital in Tennessee answered. Other numbers simply didn't work. Even after weeks of national media coverage, not a single person came forward saying they had judged the contest.
Questions about the Katies may actually go back for years. Stewart, Albanese's successor at the club, says the organization can't find any evidence that the Katies were judged from 2004-2006. In each of those years, Albanese had a hands-on role organizing the nearly 50-year-old journalism contest. If she rigged the awards, that means nearly 600 Katies were handed out arbitrarily. (Some of Albanese's friends happened to win Katies, including Bob Morrison, one of her staunchest defenders on the board.) It also means more than 1,800 finalists—many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to attend the November banquet—were selected just as randomly. Incredibly, the lack of oversight at the press club was so complete that Albanese was able to use the organization's credit card to travel around the country and take over its journalism contest to give herself trophies. And how exactly did nobody, besides Albanese, know that there were no judges for the Katie Awards?
"I don't know how we don't know," says Stewart. "It boggles the mind."
For the 2003 Katies, which Albanese chaired, the club does have a list of judges, but those awards are also highly suspect. The club furnished the Dallas Observer with a spreadsheet that lists the finalists for that year. Computer records show, however, that the spreadsheet was prepared by David Johnson, Albanese's husband, weeks before the 2003 awards. While there's no way to tell if Johnson or Albanese altered the judge's original nominations before the ceremony, they both clearly had the opportunity to do so. That year, Albanese won two Katies.
What happened to the 2006 entries is a mystery. Every year, a few weeks before the Katie Awards, around two dozen volunteers help ship the 1,500 or so entries to the contest's judges. Last year, "packing day," as it's informally called, was held on the second floor of the Women's Museum in Fair Park, where the club used to have its offices. There, volunteers snacked on coffee and doughnuts and arranged the entries into 179 brown paper bags for each of the categories. Then they placed each of the bags into boxes. As the day concluded, volunteers packed the boxes into Albanese's SUV.
No one knows where those boxes went from there. Albanese said her husband's company took care of the shipping, but she never asked for a reimbursement on his behalf, nor did she ask that his company be honored as a sponsor at the Katie Awards.
"I wish to hell I knew," Stewart says of the boxes. "Greatest mystery to me. For all I know they're in the damn Trinity River."
What will become of the press club is now in question. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the press club had real relevance to working journalists—it was a place where they met with the city's movers and shakers to get the scoop on the big story of the day. But times have changed. For most reporters, the club has no use beyond awarding the Katie Awards each year.
"We've really struggled with that," Stewart says. "What is its relevance today? I don't see the major news organizations of this community stepping up to save it. I don't have anybody beating down my door saying, 'Here's the resources to keep this organization afloat.' I have to wonder if people really do care."
There almost certainly will be no Katie Awards this year, Stewart says, and as a result, the club will lose out on the $20,000 to $50,000 the contest generates each year. Besides supporting the club (paying for its office space and its one full-time employee), the foundation paid for journalism scholarships. For years, Stewart says, the club has been "living hand to mouth." Now it is running on economic fumes.
The club has filed a lawsuit against Albanese seeking damages, but Stewart doesn't expect to get anything out of her. "She probably doesn't have a pot to piss in," he said at a recent meeting. The club spoke with the District Attorney's Office, but the prosecuting office isn't likely to pursue criminal charges.
Some wonder if the Katie Awards are gone for good. Stewart thinks that might be a possibility, but others say the contest will go on. "It's sad what happened, but the cachet the Katies had is still there," says John Miller, a former news director at Channel 8 who now teaches journalism at Texas Christian University. "You can't take a tradition that stretches back as many years as the Katies and let one person's mess-up and lack of oversight by others torpedo this thing that's gone on for decade after decade after decade.
"The people who have made a career on news in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, who have Katies sitting on their desks right now, are not going to let it go away, they're just not. Once everyone takes a deep breath, that sentiment will prevail."
As for Albanese, her career as a journalist is most likely over, at least in this market. Not long after the 2006 Katie Awards she left The Bond Buyer to take a job at First Southwest Co., a Dallas investment bank, as vice president of communications. Coincidentally, she had written a story on First Southwest that had won a 2006 Katie Award for Best Business Story. When news broke about Albanese's past, First Southwest fired her.
Albanese declined repeated requests for comment for this story. Her husband, who initially hung up on the Observer, eventually responded to a series of questions via e-mail.
"The viciousness with which certain members of the press club, and the press itself, have attacked her with innuendoes, distortions and half-truths is disturbing and saddening," he wrote. "She certainly has not been convicted of any wrongdoing, although there are some who would be their own judge, jury and executioner."
Finally, he suggested that those who were speaking out against her either had something to hide or had an ax to grind against his wife and that their information was suspect.
"Elizabeth has worked tirelessly on the press club's behalf for several years," he wrote in conclusion. "She's already been punished in the press, lost her job and career and suffered extreme humiliation."
Of course, Albanese's friends aren't likely to sympathize. Janet Ragland, a member of the press club, felt duped and embarrassed when she learned the scope of Albanese's lies. At first, she really liked Albanese. Ragland thought she was funny, quick-witted and brilliant. Most of all, she thought she was a devoted friend. When Ragland's husband was in the hospital and she spent the nights in a chair by his bed, Albanese offered to drop by and stay with her. So when Albanese resigned under questionable circumstances with her own colleagues questioning their leader's honesty, Ragland called at her home and offered her support.
"The last thing I said to her was, 'We'll still be friends.' And she agreed. She was just someone I trusted."
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