Press Club sues former leader over awards; Suit alleges fraud, demands president return all 10 Katies

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Press Club of Dallas is suing its former president for allegedly faking the judging of the Katie Awards, one of the region’s top prizes for journalists.

The suit, filed Monday in Dallas County District Court, also claims that Elizabeth Albanese was involved in “dishonest and fraudulent” activity with the club’s finances during her 19 months as president.

Last month, The Dallas Morning News reported that Ms. Albanese has a history of mental illness and a criminal history in three states under the name Lisa Albanese, including charges of theft, forgery and circulating false documents.

Ms. Albanese did not return a phone message Tuesday. Attorney Kirte Kinser said that he is representing Ms. Albanese but that he had not been specifically retained for the Press Club suit. He declined to name any other attorneys working for Ms. Albanese or to comment on the suit, which he said he had not seen.

“I think a lot of people are shaking their heads and wondering how we could all have been fooled,” said Rand LaVonn, a former club president and current president of the club’s foundation.

Ms. Albanese was, for seven years, the Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a New York-based newspaper that covers the municipal bond business. She became involved in arranging the judging of the Katies in 2003.

Since then, she has won a remarkable 10 Katies, including four last year. One was in one of the Katies’ most prestigious categories, best investigative reporting by a major-market newspaper.

When questions were raised about the legitimacy of her victories, club officials asked Ms. Albanese to produce a list of the judges in the contest. They say she has been unable to provide names that could be confirmed.

The lawsuit – which follows months of internal inquiries and almost deafening buzz in media circles – claims that there was no independent judging in at least some of the years and award categories since 2003.

The suit does not spell out the specifics of the financial claims against Ms. Albanese, but an earlier club inquiry found she had put a number of personal expenses on a club credit card, including shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and a stay at the W Hotel in New York, club officials said. They have said Ms. Albanese repaid those costs.

The suit also refers to The News’ reporting on Ms. Albanese’s past under the name Lisa. In 1996, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity on a forgery charge in Houston. A court psychologist found that Ms. Albanese had symptoms “clearly indicative of a bipolar disorder” and that she had “reported a history of psychological disturbance since late adolescence.”

The Press Club’s attorney in the case is Paul Watler, who also works extensively for The News. Joining the Press Club in the lawsuit is the Press Club of Dallas Foundation, which funds journalism scholarships for college students. The foundation relies on entry fees for the Katies for a portion of its funding.

The suit seeks the return of all 10 of Ms. Albanese’s Katie Awards. It also seeks unspecified financial damages to cover, among other things, the club’s costs in investigating Ms. Albanese.

“The actions of the past couple years have damaged the Katies and have the potential to damage our ability to give scholarships,” Mr. LaVonn said.

In a statement in The Bond Buyer, the paper’s parent company said it has found no evidence that Ms. Albanese’s stories for the newspaper were falsified.

“We are saddened by the personal difficulties that have impacted our former colleague’s reputation, but do not believe they had any impact on her work,” the statement from SourceMedia said.

In March, Ms. Albanese left journalism and became a vice president at the securities firm First Southwest Co. – a company she had written about often as a journalist, including in at least one of her Katie-winning stories. First Southwest fired her after the revelations about her past.