Greed on Trial

Did Teresa Rodriguez and her well-heeled investors deserve one another?

And so it went, with each new witness detailing the outrageous lies Rodriguez spun about non-existent contracts, and Androphy painting them in turn as collusive greedheads. Occasionally, a piercing dose of Rodriguez's shrewdness would shoot through -- as when Malone described one of her political blandishments. Malone should keep her money in while she could, Teresa advised her, because the Republicans were leaving the White House and "Clinton is favoring black people to take this program over."

Other unwholesome qualities surfaced, too. Prosecutors may well have wanted to pop an Excedrin when Glenn Kearney, the Ohio gospel singer and investments buff, allowed as how he had "read where the government paid $500 for a toilet seat or $100 for a wrench," so he thought Teresa's wildly profitable pseudo-contracts "really sounded great." As if that bald expression of cynicism weren't enough, Androphy made Kearney admit he hung out at financial seminars in search of ways to avoid paying taxes on his investment profits. After that, it was hard to get too exercised about the $75,000 Kearney had lost; and spectators might have been forgiven for wondering why prosecutors chose to save the more humble investors for last.

It was not until tape recordings Kearney had made of Roeriguez-related phone calls were played that the surprisingly low-key trial acquired the bizarre quality that voyeurs had been hoping for. In one call, he and a Dallas independent oilman named Sidney Pinkston discuss the Teresa phenomenon, with prospective investor Kearney openly worrying that the exceptionally high profits suggest a Ponzi scheme. Pinkston, a satisfied Rodriguez customer, indicates he knows what Kearney means, but goes on to say -- with unnerving prescience -- that "she's either going to be the biggest con artist in the country and end up on 60 Minutes, or else she is for real, and I think the latter is the case." (You could almost see Androphy, who had wrested the tape from the prosecution in an acrimonious wrangle, licking his chops.)

Pinkston's rehearsal of the Legend of Teresa yields some wonderfully absurdist moments. "Now is her husband the mayor, or is that another gal?" inquires the hopeful Kearney. "Well, that's close. He's assistant chief of police," replies Pinkston, conferring a nice fat promotion on HPD Captain Dale Brown, the society cop who wed Teresa in 1991, a year after her scheme burst into full flower.

The true weirdness, though, lay in Kearney's tapes of conversations he had with Rodriguez herself. Distortion made her high, quick cadences sound like Minnie Mouse speaking Urdu; the headset-wearing jurors had to follow along with transcripts to make any sense of it. Teresa's snow job on Kearney and a friend he gets on the line reads and sounds like some hallucinatory infomercial: she lies about her contacts and 8(a) minority status with aplomb, reeling the men in by telling them she's working on a $5 million contract that will pay 18 percent a month and -- surprise! -- has to be finished by tomorrow. She name drops. She brags shamelessly. ("I have received every award there is to win.") She has an answer for everything. Why doesn't she finance her deals through ordinary bank routes? Because minorities on their boards or loan committees might get ideas and compete with her. Why wasn't she at a certain investment seminar? She was at her Mexia ranch "putting in a herd of cattle."

Within a few hours, Kearney and his friend had wired Rodriguez $75,000 and $100,000, respectively. When they call her back, their voices are giddy with anticipation; they bubble with laughter. Kearney's friend tells her about a trip he'd like to make and says, "I'm sure you're going to make some of these things come ... become possible." He almost says "come true," and in that instant, the extent of the self-delusion Rodriguez was able to inspire in people cuts straight through the tape's odd distortion. And it is impossible to escape the conclusion that, in the end, the investors' self-delusion was matched only by Teresa's own -- that fierce impulse that led her to scavenge for funds, spend pathologically and somehow believe that she could keep the inherently unstable Ponzi structure from collapsing on top of everybody.

The first week's proceedings left tantalizing hints of what may lie ahead. The FBI's financial analyst suggested in her testimony that Rodriguez may have been engaging in a rarefied barter system with some of her investors such as the Barber Brothers jewelers in New York. And names of prominent Houstonians whose checks passed through some of Teresa's 37 bank accounts -- including Hunan owner and fellow clotheshorse Gigi Huang -- cropped up momentarily and vanished without explanation.

Whatever the trial brings, it's not likely to drag on long with Judge Lake at the helm. Tiny and bespectacled, with a boyish shock of chestnut hair that drapes over his brow, Lake seems equally allergic to rabbit trails and redundancy. Watching him manage his courtroom -- "We're wasting the jury's time!" he admonished the lawyers at one point -- it was hard not to imagine him giving Judge Ito pointers. If Sim Lake were presiding at the O.J. Simpson trial, it would already be over, and the prospect of a quick end to the Rodriguez trial may be the single bright spot in the whole unpalatable and unflattering Teresa mess.

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