When Democratic Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway started attacking his opponent for the Kentucky Senate seat, Republican Rand Paul, for college-aged hijinks that involved smoking pot and “praying” to a god named Aqua Buddha, Conway’s old classmates took notice.
“Can you believe he opened that door?” classmates wondered in e-mail chains, regarding why Conway would have invited scrutiny on his college days.
The reason? Conway, in his undergrad years at work hard, play hard Duke University, was a member of the school’s then-most exclusive fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), which had its own share of notable moments while Conway was studying public policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, albeit of a very different sort than the NoZe Brotherhood, Paul’s group.
The strangest episode of Conway’s time at Duke occurred in 1988, when he rushed SAE along with a man who went by Baron Maurice Jeffrey Locke de Rothschild, of the famous French Rothschild pedigree.
“The Baron,” as he was known on campus, was no ordinary SAE pledge. For one thing, he refused to participate in many of the frat’s traditions. He was also short, chubby and “flamboyantly” gay, three classmates said, far from the white, handsome, southern pedigree of the other members.
The Baron threw temper tantrums, for instance if a credit card was declined. He often sent flowers. He drove a beat-up Honda because, he said, his Maserati was in the shop. The supposed French aristocrat barely knew any French.
Perhaps it was his tie to the Rothschilds. Perhaps it was his weekend sailing plans with the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Perhaps it was simply his wealth — the Baron would show classmates his family’s mansions in worn issues of Architectural Digest.
But for whatever taste of royalty the SAE brothers got from the Baron, it turned out to be an elaborate fraud.
The Baron was in fact 37-year-old Maruo Cortez, Jr., born in Houston, Texas. He had pulled the same stunt at the Berkeley, California chapter of SAE years earlier — but the Californians caught on faster than Conway and co.
They found out too late. SAE had held a public ceremony to celebrate his membership. They couldn’t formally induct the Baron because of a probation for unspecified hazing incidents (Duke University records of such things only go back to 1996 and former members were reluctant to share more.)
He had also defrauded classmates and local businesses to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
Obviously, Conway isn’t responsible for the Baron’s fraud. But the episode was an embarrassment both for Duke and for the Baron’s friends, all of whom overlooked so many signs of what in retrospect was a preposterous fraud.
“We were all guilty,” said one of Conway’s classmates. “I sat in introductory French with this guy,” who was supposedly a French aristocrat.
Others said it was a particular blight on SAE, which weighed family wealth heavily in choosing its members.
“It’s like he was a control group,” said a classmate who was in a rival fraternity. “Every single thing that would make [Cortez] an attractive candidate for SAE was absent — except his wealth.”
Conway in particular was close to Cortez, classmates said. One went as far as to say Conway “kissed up” to the Baron because of his nobility.
In that sense, Conway was the opposite of Paul in college. The NoZe Brotherhood were outsiders, mocking their own campus culture with bizarre, incomprehensible antics. The SAEs were the ultimate insiders — southern, wealthy, almost entirely white. They had the best location on campus and looked down on others as “not SAE material.”
“They were always sort of well-dressed, wearing polo shirts, pretty preppy,” said a classmate. “They were the pretty boys,” said another.
(A spokesman for Conway, reached by phone Thursday, declined to answer numerous questions about Conway’s time in college, always redirecting the conversation back to Paul’s Aqua Buddha episode. When the author laughed at one of the more absurd turns in the conversation, the spokesman said TheDC was making light of a serious situation. “So now you’re mocking a kidnapping victim,” the spokesman said.)
The hazing violations that landed SAE on probation were probably not all that serious. The SAEs had two lions at their doors that other frats painted or tarred and feathered as a prank. SAE pledges had to clean up the mess, but notably SAE never retaliated with their own pranks.
No one would say what SAE’s rituals were. At the time, standard practice were things like quizzes on fraternity history, “hell week” with lots of drinking and maybe sleep deprivation or isolation, and in some cases, “making people strip and run around.”
“Garden variety,” is what at least four people recalled to be the type of hazing to be found on Duke’s campus then.
The frat held a kegger every Thursday night. Its members sometimes smoked pot and snorted a little cocaine, but nobody could say whether Conway was part of that. “He kept his nose clean,” a source said.
In interviews with around 25 classmates, Conway’s peers painted him as a quiet leader — serious, affable and kind of boring.
More than ten classmates repeated variations of the theme that Conway was a “nice guy.” “He was a real nice guy, didn’t have any enemies,” said one. “He was somebody who was mature in his thinking and his demeanor…like the grown up in the room,” said another.
Conway was a good basketball player and loved horse racing. He could name off the winners of the Kentucky Derby — horse name, jockey and owner — going back decades at a second’s notice.
Few could remember anything very memorable about him.
“I don’t think Jack’s all that interesting of a person,” said a classmate.
“He always looked perfect. He knew people would be looking up his college pics and what would bring him down. There were a few like that at Duke,” said another.
Conway wasn’t remembered for being religious, either at Duke or at law school at George Washington University. “I’d be shocked if he ever went to church on Sunday,” said a Duke classmate. “This was a person who in his mid 20s didn’t identify with a faith,” an acquaintance, who knew Conway when he was at George Washington, said.One more note about the SAEs: although it’s not directly applicable to Conway, it’s interesting to note that the fraternity earned a worse and worse reputation throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, eventually ending in its dissolution under pressure from Duke and the national SAE organization.
By 1994, the frat’s annual, Mexican-themed “South of the Border” party had become controversial on the politically correct campus.
In 1997, SAE was barred from holding social events for four weeks after one frat brother urinated out of a dorm room window at a kegger.
Later that same year, police busted a SAE Christmas party at 3:00 a.m. The SAE brothers had stolen 150 Christmas decorations from front lawns all over town and used them to spice up their winter formal. One of the victims of the theft tracked down his stolen wreath to the party, one of dozens hanging on the wall.
In 1998, a 16-year-old woman visitor to one of the frat’s parties alleged she was raped. That same year, frat brothers kicked in the door of an apparently unwelcome neighbor.
In 2002, another woman alleged she had been raped at an SAE party. By that time, students referred to the frat’s initials as standing for “Sexual Assault Expected.”
Under pressure from university officials and the national SAE, the fraternity eventually disbanded in 2002. The group has since re-formed as an informal, off-campus group, much to the dismay of neighbors, who told the Raleigh News and Observer of students “vomiting in their yards, ‘hanging out’ buck naked on their balconies and chanting during apparent rituals.”
Conway’s classmates said they were incredulous at the evolution of SAE after they left, which they said was out of character for the frat they knew at Duke.