One tough sister

When Jenifer Schaye pulled up to the steps of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office on the western shore of Capitol Lake a decade ago for a job interview, she knew she had come full circle.

It wasn’t simply the fact that she had been born here—near the original site of Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium—that made her feel that way.

It was as if everything else in her life had been leading up to this moment, too.

The summer evenings from her childhood spent listening to her close-knit Italian family bantering on the front porch of her North Baton Rouge home over their two favorite subjects: LSU and Louisiana politics.

Walking hand in hand with her father up the steps of the Capitol at the age of 13 to pay their respects to Earl Long, laid out in the rotunda.

Her decision after high school—much to her mother’s dismay—to leave home and join a religious order. Her ability to convince the mother superior the order should send her to law school.

Her work in the Texas Legislature for one of Houston’s most prominent Hispanic political leaders, and with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to improve relations between Hispanics and the Houston Police Department in a dark era of brutality.

Her tenure as Louisiana’s top attorney overseeing modern gambling in its scandalous infancy. Even the publicly humiliating alleged plotting between then-assistant state attorney general Connie Koury and former Gov. Edwin Edwards to oust her—caught on an FBI wiretap.

“This is not just the last place I’ll work; it’s the best place,” says the now 63-year-old general counsel and human resources director for the agency that ensures public officials in Louisiana are following the law and being good stewards of public tax money.

“It gives me an opportunity to at least be a participant in some change. It doesn’t always change, but I like to know I’m on the right side. I could make a lot more money someplace else, but I like knowing that I’m trying to help people.”

This former nun known for speaking her mind—with her own unique blend of Texas drawl and Louisiana twang—is a bit of an anomaly in government, on a single-minded mission to keep it honest and ethical.

Her entire adult life has been driven by two seemingly rival passions: a fascination with politics—even at their worst—and a desire to make the world a better place.

Schaye was an only child, born and raised in Baton Rouge and educated in Catholic schools. Her father worked at Exxon for 38 years; her mother earned $300 a month working for the state when other mothers were still at home.

Her fascination with politics began on the front porch of her North Baton Rouge home, where family from her mother’s side all lived on the same street that bore their maiden name. “As a kid,” she recalls, “everybody would sit outside and talk about LSU football and Louisiana politics, and I loved that kind of stuff.”

Then came the trip to see Earl Long with her father, a Chicago native who came to love Louisiana as his home. “I think my religious life, and my parents’ values, helped me realize the way you can really help people is through politics and government,” Schaye says. “I’ve been around enough to know it can have its seamier side. But government is still populist. It’s people.”

When she graduated from high school in the mid-1960s, Schaye had the idea she could change the world. And the people she knew who were doing it best were Catholic nuns.

She told her parents she wanted to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a teaching order whose mother house was in Irving, Texas—in the shadow of Cowboy Stadium.

That didn’t go well with her mother. “Italians like their priests, but they don’t want their children to leave, so we had a little controversy over that,” Schaye says. “I went to LSU for a summer, but I said, ‘No. I still really want to do this.’”

She studied history and economics at the University of Dallas, then went off to teach junior high school in Houston. Seven years later, the order offered to send her to graduate school. They knew she had a social bent, so they proposed a master’s degree in social work. But Schaye had something else in mind.

“I’d been to the food stamp places with people and I saw the paperwork, and I thought, ‘Ooh, I don’t want to do that,’” she says. “I told a friend, ‘You know what I’d really like to do? I want to be a lawyer.’ And she said, ‘Oh, they’re never going to let you do that.’”

She managed to convince the provincial superior to spring for the $250 law school admissions test (since she had taken a vow of poverty), and that fall, she was off to St. Louis University. She graduated in 1977 and was admitted to the bar in Texas and Louisiana.

Her first job was as a legislative aide to Rep. Ben Reyes, who at the time was considered a political patriarch to Hispanics in Houston’s East End and later went on to serve as the first Hispanic city councilman. For a while, Schaye—who was now a mother superior at a convent in Houston—worked with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to ease relations between Hispanics and Houston Police. “That was a very, very interesting time in my life,” she recalls. Decades after she moved on, though, Reyes was convicted of bribery and conspiracy and served time in federal prison.

After that, she was able to convince the order to let her open a private practice devoted to family and civil rights issues. She recalls sitting outside the grand jury room one day with a client whom police falsely accused of a crime.

“He said, ‘Jenifer, I’ve got to ask you something,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh no. I hope it’s not about the grand jury because I’ve never been before a grand jury.’ And he said, ‘Are you a mother supreme?’ I said, ‘Joe, are you kidding or what?’ And he said, ‘No, I’ve got to know.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a nun.’ And he said, ‘Oh, thank God.’ I was thinking, ‘Oh great, he’s happy I’m a nun. If I lose, he’s going to lose his faith in God.’ It was neat to represent someone like that, not just because we won, but because, you know how sometimes in life you feel like you’re on the right side? It was like that.”

In 1984, Schaye was elected to a top administrative position in the religious order and stopped practicing law for a couple of years.

Then she made the decision to leave the order.

“The way I describe it is that I was getting ready to be 40, and I was not unhappy,” she says. “But there’s a time in life when you just know you’re not as happy as you want to be. That’s when I made the decision I would leave the community; not because I didn’t believe in the church or didn’t believe in what I’d done for the last 23 years, but just because I felt a different call.”

This one brought her back home to Baton Rouge.

Through a mutual friend, she sat with Milton Womack in hopes of landing work. He put her in touch with Ellis McGee, then a first assistant attorney general, who offered her $29,000 to handle prison lawsuits. She also turned down $19,000 to work for former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick, in what she’s was convinced would have been her “dream job,” before joining the Gaming Division instead.

There, Schaye rose to become director, where she helped draft and enforce licensing rules and statutes for Louisiana’s infant gambling industry.

It was an era when there were just a handful of licenses—and a whole lot of money—to be had. One of those looking to secure a license was San Francisco 49ers and Edwards pal Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who desperately wanted a riverboat casino license.

When he first took over as commander of gambling enforcement for Louisiana State Police, Don Moreau remembers his predecessor warning him about Schaye’s controlling ways.

She was tough, indeed, to the point that Moreau calls her a “steel hand in a velvet glove.” He remembers some very heated meetings with gaming interests. But what struck him most was her knowledge—and her integrity.

“After I got to know her, I was more than willing to have her take over, because she knew what the hell she was talking about,” says Moreau, now chief of operations for the Baton Rouge coroner’s office.

“She had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the gaming industry—who was who, how it worked, what to think about various people in the industry, and what their positions were. My only experience in gaming at the time was that I had once lost a $20 bet with another trooper on whether a furry black caterpillar would make it across I-10.”

Although Schaye wielded tremendous influence in her position, Moreau says, she “always came down on the side of right. She’s the kind of person that can stand the light of day, and that’s not always true with people involved in political life. I ran into difficulty myself with gaming, as did every commander in charge who said, ‘No’ to something.”

Indeed, there were those who wanted the attorney to bend the rules to help DeBartolo, and in no time she found herself at the center of very public—and very embarrassing—political intrigue. She will say only that “people wanted me to do things I would never do.”

Subsequently, Schaye was accused of skirting public bid laws and of making misleading statements in a video poker truck stop case.

Then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub responded by demoting her and locking her out of her office, according to news reports at the time.

It wasn’t until a year later that federal authorities making a case against Edwards released a wiretap of a conversation between the former governor and Koury—then the No. 2 ranking person in the attorney general’s office—talking about ways to oust the gambling regulator without leaving “fingerprints.”

“Let me tell you what I am trying to do,” Koury—now the legal counsel for the state Board of Regents—told Edwards. “I’m trying to get rid of her without my fingerprints being on it so there is no, like: ‘I come in and there’s an easy stance on gambling all of a sudden.’”

Replied Edwards: “If you want to do it, you can’t do it for several months. I mean, you’re going to have to let everything settle down before you make the change.”

Koury has denied any wrongdoing. Edwards and Debartolo were convicted in a corruption case.

The day excerpts from the tape were reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Schaye’s old friend Gus Weill, a Louisiana political icon, called her at 5:30 in the morning. “My God, your faith has saved you,” he told her. She hadn’t even seen the newspaper yet.

“I was glad to tell my 80-something-year-old mother,” Schaye says. “She never stopped believing in me, and neither did my dad, nor anybody who knew me.”

By then, however, Schaye had already resigned to take a job for Johnson Properties, a small utility company. The firm later went bankrupt after the general manager and president pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act and using customer fees for their personal expenses.

Bankruptcy trustee Martin Schott appointed Schaye to run the company.

In 1999, then-Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle called to invite her for an interview. After listening to her side of the gaming controversy, he gave her a job as legal counsel. She’s managed to survive two of his successors—Steve Theriot and now Daryl Perpura.

Schaye has continued her mission to promote good government, fighting efforts by the Louisiana Department of Insurance and the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association to prevent auditors’ access to their records.

Lately, Schaye’s been on the front lines—literally—of the oil spill. Baton Rouge attorney Wade Shows, who’s worked with Schaye on some of her biggest legal issues with the Legislative Auditor’s office, says she’s been visiting two or three parishes a day to help individuals and government entities who have been harmed by the spill and are trying to navigate the red tape.

For someone who’s seen as much corruption as Schaye has—and still does on occasion in the pages of audits—she’s never been disillusioned by politics.

“People who do wrong are a minority,” she says. “I think Louisiana gets a bad rap. We have our scoundrels—and some of us are scoundrels at any given moment—but we have a quality and heritage that’s very special. There aren’t that many places where you can go and the people have such graciousness, such hospitality. When you’re a young person—I left here when I was 17—you think it’s like that everywhere, and it’s not.”

Schaye also holds no grudge against Koury or Edwards. Years later, when Stephen Edwards was released from a halfway house, she saw him dining at Acme Oyster House and left her table to speak with him.

“He was very nice,” she says. “Somebody with me said, ‘Wow, you went to go talk to Stephen Edwards?’ I think it’s the way people ought to be with each other.”

One thing that does stay with her from her experience, though, is empathy.

“It changed how I feel about other people,” she says. “Here, I read over every audit that has to do with fraud, and I never pull a punch. You realize you could be in their position. They made a mistake, so can I, so can you, so can all of us.”

Although gaming interests frequently mistook her as an industry opponent, she considers its growth as good for the state.

“It’s been an economic engine; it’s given a lot of people good jobs,” she says. “People said it was like a Sodom and Gomorrah thing; I don’t think it’s been that. But gaming is the kind of thing you have to have regulation, or it’s too easy to have mistakes and abuse. Even though that period ended kind of bumpy for me, I’m proud of what we did.”

On the rare occasions when Schaye isn’t working, friends most often find her hanging out with her silver poodle, Valentino—known in the neighborhood as “Valley.”

“It was just eight years ago when she got her first dog—she had never had a dog before in her life,” says Ann Edelman, a friend of two decades and neighbor. “It’s just a complete and total love affair.”

She’s also an LSU baseball fanatic, a sport she likely grew to love through her father, a Chicago White Sox fan. “She’s always talking about LSU baseball,” Shows says. “She travels to many of the games, she knows all the players, she knows all the stats, and she probably keeps the scorebook.”

But her favorite thing to do is have dinner with a friend. “I think that comes from being Italian,” she says. “Everything really important happens at a meal, you know?”