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The Dean of Corruption

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As always, Chang reassured Harrington. “She said … ‘I can always bring in more money,’ ” he testified. Two years later, she got lucky, notching a $750,000 donation. Still, raising money had become more onerous. The trouble had started in 2003, when the Taiwanese government, which had been providing several hundred thousand dollars a year, stopped contributing—the Taipei Times reported that Chang tried to bribe local officials. Chang was left to prospect for donors in Europe and the Mideast. This was cold-calling, and it was frustrating work. Chang’s secretary culled candidates from the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, and then Chang wrote letters to a “beneficent luminary,” as she called one, offering an honorary degree while pressing for a contribution. One recipient sensed a scam. “It appears that the honorary doctorates conferred by your prestigious university are generally on the basis of specific material contribution,” he wrote.

On April 2, 2009, a despairing Chang e-mailed Harrington to suggest a new approach: What if they confirmed a date for the conferment ceremony and then in coming months “provide[d] with the opportunity to contribute”? If the proposed degree recipient balked, she wrote, “we will give him an excuse for canceling [the ceremony].” Harrington e-mailed the following day that he was “very interested,” but needed to speak to the board.

Chang’s luck ran out on December 14, 2009, when a package from an anonymous sender arrived at the president’s office, containing receipts from what turned out to be the Taishin card that were different from the ones Chang had submitted. But she must have known that getting caught was inevitable. “This was an impossible operation to really run,” said one investigator. “I think that’s probably over the years that really broke her down.”

Toward the end, the pressure showed. For years, the amount she expensed matched “to the penny” what she laid out, even if she disguised the true charges. But she complained to a friend that she needed more money, in part because, she claimed, “I don’t know how to pay for all these expenses”—she meant the gifts. By 2008, she was billing the university for much more than she was spending on the credit card and pocketing the difference. And it wasn’t merely to pay for gifts. She was gambling more than ever, and clearly she was losing. She took large advances of cash at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, $5,000, even $30,000 a day—including $4,000 on Valentine’s Day—and billed them to St. John’s.

On January 6, 2010, St. John’s told Chang she was suspended without pay. In e-mail after e-mail, she begged Harrington to handle the matter internally. By then, though, it was out of his hands. The board of trustees voted to turn the matter over to the district attorney.

Once Chang had been the hostess of every party, picking up every bill. Now she was isolated. Her beloved son had relocated to Hawaii, where he landed a job as an attorney. Toward the end, she decamped for Foxwoods, the casino. “They have VIP lounge is very nice, 24 hours food, the atmosphere very nice,” Chang testified. She was drinking heavily, so much that she couldn’t cooperate in her own defense, her lawyers told a judge, who remanded her to the Manhattan Detention Center to dry out. Chang was discussing a plea deal—and probably could do a few years in a federal camp—but she refused. She hated her brief stay in jail—mainly, Mahler thought, because she couldn’t tend to her appearance.

Despite the counsel of her three lawyers, and the urging of her son, Chang took the witness stand, though she faced up to twenty years if found guilty. “She was convinced she could sway the jury,” said Mahler. Instead, her testimony buried her. She admitted again and again that she’d covered up the truth. The Queens D.A. was waiting in line to prosecute her, and anything she said could be used against her. “ ‘Don’t worry about Queens,’ ” she told Mahler, who added, “That’s when I knew she was not going to survive.”

Her day in court over, Chang went to her home a few minutes from the St. John’s campus and prepared for her death. Years ago, she’d moved her parents’ ashes to New York. “I feel very painful. I want to die. I want to be with my parents,” she wrote in one suicide note.

Afterward, those at St. John’s who knew Chang best, who’d missed Chang’s fraud for years while benefiting from her extravagant gifts, have continued to express surprise. “I really liked Cecilia,” Harrington told the student newspaper in an unpublished interview after her death. “I kept saying, ‘Something’s going to come up here [to explain this]. I just can’t believe Cecilia would do this.’ I trusted her.”

Additional reporting by Ashley Collman.


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