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."

The Ave Maria Oratorium square.
Michael E. Miller
The Ave Maria Oratorium square.
Marielena Stuart says the administration is trying to "intimidate its residents and property owners."
Courtesy of Marielena Stuart
Marielena Stuart says the administration is trying to "intimidate its residents and property owners."

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," wrote another. "For that, I am grateful."

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.

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When you meet Marielena Stuart you feel you are in the presence of royalty. I heard her speak before several hundred persons and she had them eating out of her hand. She is a brilliant speaker and will go down in history as one of America's most respected Senators, by all Americans, regardless of party affiliation. She is even much more attractive in person than on the photo that appears in this article.


This story is filled with so much anti- catholic bigotry and prejudice it makes me sick. Ms Stuart also has her face in another story when the church was dedicated and consecrated and how thrilled she was to be part of the parish. Obviously your editor dosen't know anything about catholic churches,Mass cannot be said until the church is finished and consecrated by the bishop.Calling the church a monstrosity and a cyclops is derogatory to say the least. I have a young friend who recently graduated from AMU andhe and his family loved the college atmosphere, he received an excellent education and had no complaints about the school being app 20 miles from Naples,many good colleges are situated out in the country. Your piece about a disgruntled woman who seems to be so self serving and two faced is basically a means for your paper to show your ignorance and anti-catholic feelings.


Freaks belong in the swamp!


my son is a freshmen football player at amu i am a 25 year die hard union man and a obama  guy.raise catholic i am the most non relgious person in the world been 2 ava marie 20 times since march of this year been 2 the bean the smoothie place drank bass ale at the pub with the locals and parents of amu every body was very chilled no one freaking out over anything . my son doent go 2 church  the shool puts ZERO PRESSURE on him 2  go. what im try 2 say that this story about the kids of amu getting a bad education and the sprorts program is BULLSHIT STORY  ITS STINKS 2 HIGH HEAVEN SO 2 SPEAK  i got no prob with my kid going there what so ever coach fagan an deer  are very good people   this  is a bullshit hack job story fuck the new times  thank u thank u very much 


This is the problem when you mix politics, religion, and money.  You get what really IS fascist.  Its one of the reasons the founders were smart enough not to allow religion into government.  Too bad there are those who want to put it back.