Cecilia Chang had always been a meticulous planner, so it made sense that she left three notes at the scene of her suicide, each prepared for a specific audience. The previous day, Monday, November 5, 2012, she’d tied up a loose end, testifying at her own trial and admitting to defrauding her employer, St. John’s University. She’d stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars, living a superrich life on a university salary that at its peak was $120,000. The next day, like every day, she was flawlessly put together, her hair carefully arranged to conceal a thinning spot. She wore one of her flowery, silky blouses with a fitted black jacket.
Then, in her Jamaica Estates home, where the government said she’d forced scholarship students to clean and cook, she turned on the gas in the kitchen, slit her wrists, and, when the desired result didn’t come quickly enough, tossed a stereo cord over the ladder to the attic and hung herself. The notes, carefully written in Chinese, were found at the scene. One was to her only son: “I love you,” she wrote, and she apologized to him. Another, to the judge and jury, with a politeness she maintained till the end, thanked them for their time and attention. The third, the most elaborate, she addressed to her employer, for whom she reserved her fury. She’d been a fund-raiser at St. John’s for three decades, bringing in millions of dollars. And in the end, she felt the school had abandoned her. “She felt betrayed by them,” said one of her attorneys. In her note, she used a word to describe herself that was translated as scapegoat.
Chang was fantastically corrupt, there can be no doubt. The details of her fraud are outlandish, grotesque. She charged her bookie’s daughter’s wedding to the university, disguising the roughly $14,000 expense as a business charge; she had St. John’s pay almost $58,000 for her son’s law-school tuition, plus textbooks and lunches. But Chang was something more than a simple con artist, deceiving her employers for personal gain. She was deeply embedded in the institution—she’d built herself a nest and had feathered it well, while taking elaborate care of those around her. She seems to have been sincere—if deluded—in her belief that she’d earned the life she’d built. Over the years, she was the university’s second-most-successful fund-raiser—only President Father Donald Harrington ranked above her. She may have raised close to the $20 million she claimed—although in the last few years, when the fraud was at its height, she spent as much as she took in, or even more.
Some of that spending went to feather other nests, too. By all accounts, she was a doting mother—she gave her son a credit card, then billed everything from his ski vacations to his Big Macs to the university. And she was a good friend, showing her love through ostentatious gifts—the children of friends got St. John’s scholarships. But it was her superiors who received some of the most lavish rewards. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on Father Harrington and tens of thousands more on his chief of staff, Rob Wile. Wile had a credit card on Chang’s account, and in five years, according to credit-card statements, he charged roughly $45,000 to it—some at Prada and Lanvin and Ferragamo—even during the period when he was signing off on Chang’s expenses. The gifts to Father Harrington included suits from the finest Hong Kong tailors, a watch from Patek Philippe, cases of expensive wine, and a Caribbean vacation, some of which Chang coyly suggested were underwritten by unnamed “friends of the university,” though in fact they were billed to St. John’s itself, concealed as legitimate business expenses. “She took care of everyone that she met,” says one investigator. “Everyone that she needed.”
In Chang’s mind, according to her testimony, her methods and extravagant, university-funded lifestyle were accepted, if unacknowledged, as the way she did business. Chang operated her own completely independent fiefdom within the university, one with its own set of rules—she rarely even set foot on campus. Officials didn’t question that. Nor did they insist on identifying the supposedly generous “friends” underwriting their expensive perks.
Then when her fraud surfaced in late 2009, those same officials acted as shocked and dismayed as a Casablanca police chief. “For 30 years, they all turned a blind eye, and nobody knew anything,” says one of her lawyers, Stephen Mahler. Chang put it more succinctly in her testimony: “They should know.”
St. John’s University is today a very different school from the one Cecilia Chang arrived at almost 40 years ago—and for all her corruption, she played a role in changing it. Chang arrived in August 1975, a 22-year-old dynamo with a bachelor’s degree from Taiwan, her home, and a grant that covered her tuition. “A little ball of fire,” says one colleague. Not only smart, she was also driven, an avatar of the new, globalized, multilingual St. John’s that was about to be born. Chang let people know about her illustrious bloodline, which she said connected her to Chiang Kai-shek, a founder of modern Taiwan, and about her family’s wealth (doubted by investigators), which she liked to emphasize with a sable coat that fit snugly over her size 1 frame. Chang quickly accumulated a master’s and an M.B.A. and, a few years later, a doctorate in education from Columbia. Her English was spotty at best—she never entirely mastered the language—but she was resourceful, if not entirely ethical; she paid a fellow Columbia student to rewrite her dissertation. And she was a winning, natural host with an uncanny talent for captivating her superiors, particularly men. “She was like a courtesan,” says one of her frequent male dinner companions. “She hovered over you.” She carried a pad and took notes during conversations, as if what her dinner partner said were too important to be forgotten.