When dozens of high-profile Houstonians who claim they're owed money from enterprises run by Teresa Rodriguez gather at the Harris County Jury Assembly Room at month's end for a creditors' soiree, they'll have the opportunity to trade burn stories and ponder the question: how did so many (at least outwardly) intelligent folks get taken for so much by someone with so few business credentials?
All creditors are not created equal, of course, and some won't be at the gathering, because through luck or favor they managed to retrieve chunks of their doomed investments shortly before the IRS shut down Rodriguez' operation in the spring of 1993. Some aren't even on this earth anymore. Josilee Hancock of Rockport, who claimed to be owed $108,000, has since died.
The feds are investigating Rodriguez for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme built on investments taken in from the gullible on the promise of huge profits to be made from government contracts. Whether the folks who received last-minute payments from Rodriguez' companies will keep the proceeds is likely to hinge on the outcome of lawsuits filed by the bankruptcy trustee to recover that money. If the payments are judged to be preferential awards from Teresa to pals, they would have to be returned to the trustee for payment to the pool of creditors. Earlier, a group of the investors had sued Rodriguez, forcing her into an involuntary bankruptcy that resulted in the court appointment of Ben Floyd as trustee. While the Rodriguez saga has generated gallons of media ink locally and nationally, so far the feds have failed to commit a drop to indictments.
A list of creditors receiving large payments from Rodriguez in the final three months of her reign is included in trustee Floyd's recently issued first report on the state of Rodriguez' iced-down business corpse. With a former Rodriguez employee and a creditor, both of whom prefer to remain unnamed, as guides, here's a breakdown of the temporary winners who at least retrieved something before Rodriguez's empire imploded:
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*Neiman Marcus: Rodriguez' endless appetite for top-of-the-line clothing, jewelry and home furnishings has been documented ad nauseam, so it comes as no surprise that the "shop til you get popped" girl paid a quarter-million dollars to Neiman Marcus in her last three months of spreedom. Rodriguez used Neiman's so extensively that she hired away one of the gifts department's employees, Jack Mills, as her own personal buyer and organizer at the store. In the post-Teresa era, he's back gift-guiding at Neiman's.
"She spent $150,000 a month at Neiman Marcus," says one of our Rodriguez sources. Since Neiman's is not listed among the crowd of creditors seeking repayment of debts, it appears this is one account that Teresa kept up to date. The fashion priority also shows up in a $30,000 payment to clothier Esther Wolf.
*Timothy Anderson and/or Nathan Ross: Hard to be a winner if you're deceased. Anderson died of leukemia earlier this year, but Floyd's trustee report lists $1.3 million paid to Anderson and/or Nathan Ross, apparently for accounting services. Ross currently is listed among creditors of Rodriguez for an unspecified amount.
*J. Suzanne DeFloor: A prominent Atlanta socialite, DeFloor received $85,000 and has filed unspecified claims against Rodriguez. One creditor says DeFloor introduced Rodriguez to Catalina Villalpando, the former treasurer in the Bush administration, who operated a telecommunications company in Atlanta before getting in hot water with the feds for her own business practices. DeFloor also connected Teresa to a wider potential world of investors for her enterprises.
*Enoc and Adrianna Arozqueta: The folks who got the third-degree burns from their involvement with Rodriguez seem to be the investors furthest from her inner circle. By contrast, Mexican nationals and River Oaks residents Enoc and Adrianna Arozqueta got $999,000 shortly before The Fall and are claiming in court they are owed more. "They built that huge monster of a house guarded by stone Fu-dogs there on Kirby Drive," says our creditor source. "They were very close friends with Teresa and at the time were building a home together in Acapulco."
Adds the former Rodriguez employee: "They've got more money than God. What really upset them after Teresa went under was not the money, but that she never called to explain. The Arozquetas are typical bourgeois nouveau riche -- no taste whatsoever. It was always price wars between Adrianna and Teresa to see who could spend the most amount of money on anything."
*Barber Bros. Jewelry of New York and principals Simon and Abraham Barber: Rodriguez' jewelry fetish is cliched by now, but keeping the rocks pipeline open in the glory days was an obvious priority, as with Neiman's. More than $780,000 went to the Barbers and their enterprises in the closing months. But that did not keep Simon in particular from getting scorched.
"That money was for investments and buying jewelry," the Rodriguez source says of the Barber payments. "Simon had at least $2 million more invested in Teresa, some raised through a group of Hasidic Jewish diamond associates. He went to this group to get the money, and was under a lot of pressure to get the money back. He was literally camped out at Teresa's office waiting for it." Judging by the claims filed by the Barbers against the Rodriguez enterprises in court, he's still waiting.
*Burney Interests Inc. and Ted Miller Interests: The two companies, operated by William Burney and Ted Miller, received $132,000. According to Floyd's report, Rodriguez supplied the funds to the interests to purchase the Lawndale Village apartments in east Houston. In a compromise, according to court documents, the trustee has since secured the title to the apartments. Burney and Miller have court claims pending against the Rodriguez enterprises.
*Kirby and Virginia Ewing and David Delaunay: All were closely involved with Rodriguez, Ewing as an investor and his wife and Delaunay as antique suppliers. Oilman Ewing's presence convinced other reputable types that Teresa was on the up and up. Delaunay and his company received only $6,000 in the final months, but the Ewings were paid $228,000. After the IRS raided Rodriguez' Montrose townhouse, Delaunay moved in and now serves as the trustee for the property. Virginia Ewing and Delaunay operate adjoining antique businesses on West Gray. The Ewings have unspecified claims against Rodriguez in bankruptcy court.
*MMD, an investment group headed by Mike Dunston: Dunston's group received $875,000 in payments. According to the one-time Rodriguez employee, "He factors receivables, officed with Teresa and invested a ton of money with her." Toward the end, Òhe probably saw the writing on the wall, because he was there every day."
*Sophia Williams: Of White Russian lineage, Williams lives at the St. James in River Oaks and enjoys a network of influential friends. She recommended Teresa to Rosemary Malone, a high-profile socialite, who suffered third-degree financial burns and is seeking the return of $1,525,897. Malone's also the subject of legal action by the trustee to recover funds, although she received a piddling $21,000 in the final three months.
"A wonderful, kind woman who trusted Teresa implicitly," our source says of Williams. "She introduced Teresa to a lot of people and at the really major fashion gigs she'd be there at the table with Teresa. Sophia has no great amount of funds, just happens to know all these people but didn't have that kind of coin at all. Really got hosed and I really feel sorry for the woman." Williams did receive a payback from Rodriguez of $161,000 in the final 90 days, so don't cry for her just yet.
Even Teresa's charitable interests seemed to have a mercenary edge. Trustee Floyd reports she gave $40,000 to the Foundation of Interfaith Research and Ministry, headed by the Rev. Earl Shelp, who also operates the Acorn Foundation, a group organizing volunteers to assist terminally ill AIDS patients. Shelp is now claiming $321,615 in lost funds that the non-profit foundation invested in Rodriguez contracts, and unlike some of the cases listed above, the do-gooders have nothing to show for their investment except a series of frantic faxes beseeching Rodriguez for money in the closing days.
Some of the folks receiving payments from Rodriguez are already the subject of $840,000 in suits to recover the money on the grounds they received preferential treatment. They include River Oaksies Betty Schindler, Irene Robertson and the above-mentioned Rosemary Malone. The trustee has up to four years to file suits against others on the payback list. And when all the dust settles, government claims, billings by the trustee and investigator fees will likely reduce the value of the high-rolling world of TR Enterprises to a bone-white pile of legal documents.
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