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But in the rush to relocate, Monaghan was breaking rules left and right. The new Ave Maria University in Naples wasn't yet accredited, so admissions and financial aid had to be handled by the Michigan office.
Soon Ernsting figured out that money and students were being illegally shuffled between the two schools. She warned her colleagues: "I think that could be fraud," and one complained to the U.S. Department of Education, which opened an investigation.
"They were pulling a lot of shenanigans," says now-retired DOE investigator Joseph Hajek. "The whole show was run by the one person, Tom Monaghan. Whatever he said went." Hajek soon began to suspect that federal Pell Grants were being funneled to a campus that Ave Maria had opened in San Marcos, Nicaragua, in 1999. "There was a lot of money going there, but they couldn't even prove that the kids were actually going there," Hajek says. "They would sign someone up, and then they'd be gone."
Ernsting says Ave Maria officials "thought they could just play dumb and ignore the whole thing." But she worked hard to gather documents and submitted the key ones to prosecutors.
In May 2004, the DOE ordered Ave Maria to pay back $259,000 in financial aid and fines, but Ernsting's cooperation and hustle kept prosecutors happy and staved off criminal charges. Yet she was fired, so several weeks later she filed a whistleblower lawsuit. In a deposition, Monaghan claimed, "What [Ernsting] reported was slanted and erroneous and maybe even malicious."
"The whole thing was kind of a nightmare for me," says Ernsting, who nearly went bankrupt because Monaghan's lawyers delayed the trial for five years. "These were people that I loved. I still have very warm feelings for Tom Monaghan... but I knew brushing it under the rug wasn't right either." Monaghan declined to comment for this article.
Ernsting was just the first of at least five employees to sue Monaghan over the move to Florida. Stephen Safranek, who helped found the law school, complained to the American Bar Association that Monaghan wasn't acting in the school's best interests by relocating. He also argued that Monaghan had hidden his intentions to move and misled the ABA two years earlier when applying for accreditation.
The professor led a September 2006 faculty revolt against the move — and was quickly fired. Then, like Ernsting, he sued. "We had done everything right. We were poised to be one of the best law schools in the country," Safranek says. "But Monaghan's greed, his desire to say, 'Look what I'm going to do; I'm going to create this university in the middle of nowhere,' ruined it all."
Charlie Rice, a founding board member of Ave Maria law school and then a constitutional law professor at both Notre Dame and Ave Maria, agrees. "Monaghan just wanted to get rid of people who were not favorable to the move. He treated those guys outrageously. It was unconscionable."
Rice adds that, before leaving the law school, he warned Monaghan that his idea for a strictly Catholic town to host the university was impossible. "Tom had this concept of a place with no pornography, no contraceptives," he says. "I told him right up front that there is no way he could do that. It would be unconstitutional."
Monaghan didn't listen.
On November 5, 2009, Marielena Stuart was packing her camera, crucifix, and pearls to attend a news conference about a $4 million donation to build an athletic center at the university when she checked her email. "Due to your recent history of being disruptive at meetings," the message from Ave Maria University's public relations firm said, "you are not invited to attend the press conference today." Stuart was baffled. What did her statements at town meetings have to do with the university? Is this even legal? she wondered.
Two sheriff's deputies and three security guards were waiting when she arrived at the Ave Maria student center. Their message was clear: Step foot on university property again and you'll be arrested. They escorted her from campus.
"This administration is [trying to] intimidate its residents and property owners," Stuart immediately vented on her blog. "[It] is a violation of our constitutional rights." A week later, she met with Fox 4 News and discussed what she saw as the university's hypocrisy and abusive behavior.
"What's going on here isn't Catholicism," she says now. "This town is built around the idiosyncrasies of one man: Tom Monaghan. It's madness."
Local reaction was swift and caustic. The Ave Herald, the town's online newspaper, invited readers to leave anonymous comments about Stuart's interview.
"The woman came across as an angry, bitter woman with a chip on her shoulder," one commenter wrote.
"I deduce that filling the news hole with this relatively weak story must mean there was not another family murder in Naples or gang rape in Immokalee. For that, I am grateful," wrote another.
Stuart responds that the messages were left by "Monaghan's little soldiers here who are always willing to wage vicious, anonymous attacks."
Around that time, it came to light that Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation was going broke. During the 2008-09 school year, the university lost an estimated $16.4 million — more than twice the amount it had publicly revealed. Part of that debt was attributable to Monaghan's obsession with sports, which had already cost the school millions of dollars and several controversies. For a decade, the billionaire had dreamed of building a Catholic university football program that could crush Notre Dame.