Chang was accustomed to seeing her fudged expenses sail through. For a year or so, Wile was one of the two people to approve her expenses. He signed one form on September 24, 2008, along with CFO Tom Nedell, according to a copy. The form covered the period during which Wile had put a Hong Kong shopping spree as well as the Four Seasons on Chang’s account. He apparently didn’t notice that none of those charges appeared on the statement.
Wile continued to sign off on Chang’s expenses, even as he put in his Christmas wine order. It was one of Chang’s annual rituals to shower top university officials with holiday gifts, and her office started early. According to an October 27, 2008, e-mail from Chang to Wile, she’d been able to track down his request for reds, 2004 Fay Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and would ship him two cases, at $1,000 a case. She said she was having trouble finding his white selection, Ramey Hyde Chardonnay, Carneros 2005, also $1,000 a case at current prices. Chang understood Wile’s taste for the finer things and also gave him gift certificates to high-end stores—$1,000 some years. (Harrington, Chang’s direct boss, designated the wine he wanted, too—gifts worth about $20,000 over half a dozen years, according to the general counsel’s testimony.) All of the gifts, of course, were billed to the university.
Harrington knew that Chang often departed from standard operating procedure—ignoring, as her lawyer Joel Cohen charged, “obvious red flags.” Auditors recommended that Chang drop the Taiwanese credit card—some of the bill was in Chinese characters. Harrington told her that “unless she could satisfy the CFO, she could no longer continue at St. John’s,” according to notes from Harrington’s FBI interview. But he let her keep the card after she explained that the Taiwanese bank president was a donor and would be insulted if they dropped it. As for handing in originals of the bills, another of the auditors’ recommendations, she simply ignored it. In 2008, Harrington learned that Chang had once again brazenly flouted the rules. She’d granted her son a scholarship to the law school, which Harrington said “disappointed” him. Chang immediately admitted her mistake and in September 2008 wrote two checks totaling $58,700 to cover back tuition, which she then hid in her expenses, which Wile reviewed.
That no one scrutinized Chang’s huge expenses—she accounted for 10 percent of the university’s entire travel and entertainment budget in later years—implied, as she saw it, tacit permission to operate outside the rules. “It’s nearly impossible to believe that she was able to behave this way without at least a wink and a nod from some at the school who benefited from her ‘generosity,’ ” said Alan Abramson, another of her attorneys.
Perhaps Chang’s most obvious professional idiosyncrasy, one with which her superiors were certainly acquainted, was her promiscuous dispensing of scholarship grants over twenty-odd years. She extended grants to the children of just about everyone she knew: one to her hairdresser’s nephew, another to her favorite Queens restaurateur’s daughter, and one to the daughter of Marianna Addabbo, who later worked as her assistant in the office where the fraud was executed. “If you knew her, you got a grant,” said Mahler. The students’ only obligation was to work twenty hours a week, a duty that Chang took full advantage of. Some students worked in her office falsifying expense reports, and others worked at her home cooking, cleaning, driving, taking her mink and sable coats to the cleaners, and ferrying around her son, whom the government called an unindicted co-conspirator. These assignments led the federal government to charge her with “forced labor.”
Chang, again, didn’t tell anyone specifically about how she used the students. But as she testified in her imperfect English, “I think they don’t want to know they don’t see, I don’t believe they don’t know.”
In Chang’s mind, she and Harrington had a symbiotic relationship. She brought in money and catered to his needs—when Harrington’s Patek Philippe broke, she had it repaired (at a cost of $1,638); when his chief of staff’s shirt cuffs were too wide, she had them fixed. He constantly scolded her but never stayed mad.
Because, however unorthodox her methods, for years Chang looked like a very good deal for the university. But in late 2007, Harrington finally learned of a fundamental problem with Chang’s operations: She was spending almost as much as she was raising—she had averaged $350,000 per year. Harrington admonished her once again: “This can’t continue, and so unless something changes here, either in terms of cost or in terms of success in fund-raising, we really are going to have to talk about winding down this operation.”