Ascent of a Woman
In a sea of basic black, Susan Menke wore red.
The occasion was the early December Holiday Spree benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and the strawberry-blond Menke cut a striking figure in her low-cut, beaded gown of scarlet and matching over-the-elbow gloves. A few days later, a photo of the five-foot-ten-inch Menke in that eye-popping ensemble, towering over three more sedately outfitted socialites, cropped up in a Chronicle social column. Menke, it was noted, had been the auction chair for the charity fundraiser.
Houston society is unusually open and possessed of a short memory, so hardly anyone looked askance or even recalled that the last time Susan Menke's photo had appeared in a local newspaper was ten years earlier, after she was sentenced to four years in prison for theft.
On that day, she was dressed in conservative business attire and was a brunette.
A real estate broker and onetime elementary school teacher, Menke was the first of ten people to be indicted following disclosures of financial mismanagement by the trustees of the Hermann Estate, which endows Hermann Hospital.
She and a former general manager of the charitable trust were accused of dividing two unauthorized checks drawn on the estate, helping themselves to a total of $128,927. The money was reported as real estate commissions, but the general manager testified that Menke did no work on the sales.
Menke, however, professed her innocence, and her lawyer argued that she was the scapegoat for wealthy and powerful people connected to the estate.
It was quite a comedown. In the early eighties, prior to her indictment and conviction, Menke had been a glamorous rising star in local real estate circles, the envy of other brokers. She sported all the accouterments of success in pre-bust Houston, including a condo at the posh Four Leaf Towers, the requisite Mercedes and membership in what one discerning observer describes as the city's "fringe cafe society."
By the end of the decade, she was in the Harris County Jail.
"How's my makeup?" Menke asks as she breezes through the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel. "It's new, Cindy Crawford." The fashion model's products are available at Walgreen's, she adds by way of a fashion tip.
Menke has agreed, somewhat warily, to sit for an interview about life after the fall. Earlier, she had promised to meet at the Omni Hotel, then canceled on the day of the scheduled interview. Later, she would consent to having her picture taken, preferably in front of the peach-colored walls at the Omni. Eventually, however, she refused to be photographed.
On the day she shows at the Doubletree, Menke is wearing chunky gold jewelry, black slacks and a red military-style jacket studded with gold buttons. A trail of Knowing perfume by Estee Lauder follows in her wake. The accent is deeply Southern; her preferred descriptives seem to be "precious" and "special." There was one fellow female inmate at the county jail who was "just darling," she remembers.
These days, the 44-year-old Menke is working once again as a real estate broker, and her ambition apparently remains undiminished by her brush with the law. After her release from jail, she tried living in California, but, as she explains, "I wanted to come home and rise to the top again in the town where I was found guilty, convicted and sentenced."
In getting through her legal predicament, Menke says she found a sense of humor and her religious faith both came in handy.
"If you don't laugh, you go nuts," she says, recalling the job search she mounted while awaiting the outcome of her appeals of her conviction. She needed work, but there was a hitch: how to inform prospective employers she had been found guilty of conspiring to steal from a charity.
"I looked at all the etiquette books. No one has ever addressed that problem before," she says, only half-jokingly.
Outside of her job, Menke says she stays busy taking Bible study classes several times a week at the Houston Bible Institute.
"I just love, love, love to read the Bible," she explains.
She swears it's not a recently acquired passion, that she's adored Bible stories since she was a young girl, and during her trial, she did seem to find comfort in her faith. Each morning she led her defense team in a prayer. After she was sentenced, she cheerfully told reporters that she could see herself "painting the jail walls, getting all the girls in Bible studies and all the girls in exercise class."
Those classes would have had to have been mini-courses, as it turns out. Menke entered the county jail on July 25, 1989, and left just two months later after a visiting judge granted her "shock probation," resulting in her immediate release.
Menke still maintains her innocence. But to the mildly curious, her reemergence into the public eye brings to mind a few questions: How does a convicted thief obtain a real estate broker's license? Who would feel comfortable knowing that a land transaction involving millions of dollars was being handled by a broker who's done time? And why would a charity rely on the fundraising of someone who's been convicted of stealing from a charity?
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 rsums, 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.
Mosbacher says he had no reservations about hiring Menke and found she did a thorough job for him.
"From what little I knew of it, it sounded like she took more than a large part of the blame," Mosbacher says of Menke's role in the Hermann scandal. "If she was guilty, she had less knowledge than the others because she was not sophisticated in those kinds of transactions. She's smart in some areas and incredibly naive in others."
Guilty or not, he adds, Menke has paid her dues.
In November 1994, Menke slipped quietly into the local business pages again when she was listed as representing both parties in First Metropolitan Baptist Church's purchase of 25 acres on the east side of Sam Houston Tollway.
Pastor John Ogletree expressed some surprise when asked if he had been hesitant to work with Menke. Ogletree says he knew nothing of Menke's past, but he found the Bible-quoting broker to be "professional and aggressive."
At present, Menke says she's waiting to close a $5 million deal.
"I'm not making as much money as I did in the eighties," she says. "But I'm on the way to."
She's also a new member of the Houston Symphony League and is trying to get her children's stories published. Overall, Menke says, her life is pretty dull. She's not a "party girl," preferring to stay home at night and read the Bible. And she's obviously not lying awake agonizing over her past: when one prominent Houston businessman recently asked Menke how she was doing after dealing with all "her problems," she flashed a puzzled gaze and replied, "What problems?"
The folks at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation aren't comfortable talking about Menke's problems, but executive director Sissy Boyd, who was a co-chair of the foundation's Holiday Spree, credits Menke with "a fabulous job" acquiring items that were auctioned off at the charity benefit.
"She has maintained a lot of connections," Boyd says. "I wish we had more Susan Menkes."
One person who betrays a bit of skepticism over Susan Menke's resurrection is Don Stricklin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted her back in the mid-eighties. Asked what he thinks about Menke having a license to broker real estate deals once again, Stricklin paused. A jury heard the evidence E, he starts to reply before catching himself.
"I think this is one of your bite-your-tongue things," the prosecutor finally allows. "It's best if I say absolutely nothing.