The River Oaks Country Club in Houston sits like a plantation mansion amid a vast expanse of magnolias, dogwood, azaleas, and golf greens. Yet the club barely stands out among the equally massive estates — the mock Taras, Pickfairs, Monticellos, and Bridesheads — that populate the city’s most prestigious neighborhood. One of these trophy properties, a three-story Gothic Revival with a small fountain in front, is where Lea Weingarten grew up.
She lived among the city’s social royalty: Neighbors included art patron Dominique DeMenil, ex-Governor John Connally, and the descendants of wildcatters, ranchers, and financiers who had founded Rice University, Humble Oil, and most of the city’s other major institutions. In Houston, Lea’s family stood alongside these legends. The main pavilion at the Jewish Community Center of Houston was named after her grandfather, a Polish immigrant named Joseph Weingarten who built big grocery store and real estate empires in the Southwest.
There wasn’t much farther up Houston’s social ladder to go. And yet, as an adult, Lea W. Fastow, now 41, climbed higher. She and her ambitious husband, Andrew S. Fastow, also 41, took jobs at booming Enron Corp. in 1990. He rocketed to the post of chief financial officer in less than eight years. She quit in 1997, after the first of her two sons was born, and proceeded to become a nationally prominent art patron — leading Enron’s art committee and enlisting hot talents to design custom projects for the company’s headquarters. J
None of her high-concept projects ever came to be. That’s too bad, because a big mound of stratospherically priced tulips would have been a perfect monument to Enron. And, in hindsight, a sculpture evoking the world’s first speculative mania would have been a pretty good symbol of Lea Fastow’s crash, too. On May 1, federal agents handcuffed her and charged the Houston heiress with helping Andrew orchestrate one of the most notorious white-collar crimes in history.
According to the government, the socialite belonged to a small group of loyalists who executed the complex schemes devised by Andrew Fastow to inflate Enron’s performance and enrich themselves. She is accused, essentially, of serving as a stand-in for her husband — wiring money, cashing checks, and handling financial housekeeping matters that the Enron CFO didn’t want his fingerprints on. Lea’s story, pieced together for the first time by BusinessWeek from internal corporate documents, government investigations, and more than two dozen interviews with friends and co-workers, is unique.