Ascent of a Woman

If you've got the drive, a conviction for stealing from a charity is no obstacle on the social climb. Just ask Susan Menke.

One answer to all these questions, more or less, is that Susan Menke, whose lawyer portrayed her as the fall girl for the rich and powerful in the Hermann scandal, still has a knack for finding friends in high places.

Menke's road back from the conviction actually began one day in 1987. She was about ready to give up on finding a job, and, searching for solace, she turned to a Bible passage from the book of Luke that reminded her that prayers must be consistent. So she kept praying, and later that day, her desire for a half-gallon of diet ice cream drew her to a Rice Epicurean Market. There, her prayers were answered.

Somewhere near the ice cream freezer, Menke bumped into Alvin Lubetkin, the CEO of Oshman's. An acquaintance from the Four Leaf Towers, Lubetkin told her he was looking for a director of real estate for his sporting goods chain. After going through a series of interviews and a lie detector test, Menke got the job.

As Oshman's director of real estate, she was charged with finding and evaluating locations for future stores. The position didn't require a broker's license. Lubetkin also offered an unusual benefit: after Menke's appeals were exhausted in 1989 and she had no choice but to serve time, he agreed to hold her job open until her release.

It's difficult to imagine Susan Menke shedding her designer apparel and Chanel purses for a green jailhouse frock. And to hear her tell it, her incarceration was a bit like Private Benjamin joining the Army. On her first day behind bars, she was placed in a tank packed with a collection of prostitutes and drug dealers.

"Where's my room?" she asked, her standard-issue flat mattress under her arm.

"Sister, you are standing on it," explained one burly inmate, whom Menke came to know as the tank bully.

The former Four Leaf Towers resident slept on the floor, under a bright light, for two months. By day, she read her Bible, wrote poems and drew butterflies on handkerchiefs with markers. She called in to her office daily to keep abreast.

At one point, true to her word, she did try to hold a Bible class for "the girls." But there wasn't much interest. She never bothered organizing the exercise classes; many of her fellow inmates already were too thin due to cocaine use and other drug-related problems, she explains.

Menke walked out of jail at 3 a.m. on September 25, 1989, and reported back to work at Oshman's five hours later, "like nothing had ever happened."

Her job with Oshman's took her to California and back before it ended in 1991, and it proved helpful in her efforts to reacquire a broker's license. Menke applied to the Texas Real Estate Commission for both salesman's and broker's licenses. (A salesman is a lower-rung licensee and must be supervised by a broker.) In Texas, a criminal conviction does not necessarily bar an applicant from obtaining either. It's up to the commission, which initially "disapproved" Menke's request for both licenses.

Undaunted, Menke appealed. A hearings examiner, James Fletcher, agreed with the commission's refusal to grant her a broker's license but overturned its decision on her salesman's application. According to Fletcher, Menke put on an impressive show in arguing that she should have her license reinstated.

"She had character witnesses, a responsible job, and there was evidence of rehabilitation," Fletcher says.

Menke swamped the commission with rŽsumŽs, copies of Christian children's stories and poems she had written since her conviction, and notebooks full of self-penned testimonials to her own integrity.

She also mustered 65 character witnesses. Among them were former boss Lubetkin and Robert Mosbacher, the commerce secretary in the Bush administration, to whom Menke had sold land in the early eighties.

Although Lubetkin wasn't present on the day of the hearing, he wrote a letter to the commission praising Menke's work for Oshman's. Today, Lubetkin acknowledges he had some initial concerns about hiring Menke, but he says he was impressed by her drive and felt she deserved a second chance.

So, evidently, did James Fletcher. He granted Menke a two-year probationary salesman's license in 1991. After the probationary period was up in 1993, Menke applied for a broker's license. This time, the commission approved. "We knew we would be overturned if we disapproved it," says a commission spokeswoman.

Just four years out of jail, Menke once again possessed a broker's license. But she needed some business. Unable to afford a car (she had a company vehicle with Oshman's), she took to walking to appointments or taking cabs until a deal closed. But she allowed herself one luxury: a membership at the Houstonian. Working out, she explains, was more important than food or a car.

Her luck changed again when President Bush was defeated for re-election, because that brought former business acquaintance Mosbacher back to town. Desperate, she called Mosbacher for an appointment, hopped a cab to his office and asked if he would consider loaning her $2,500 a month until her deals started closing and she could pay him back.

Mosbacher thought about it, but instead retained Menke to research properties in the Cinco Ranch area. She eventually became his broker for a deal involving three properties and totaling 2,200 acres.

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