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.
Chang quickly became friends with St. John’s then-president, Father Joseph Cahill, a vociferous conservative firebrand. Cahill single-handedly fought off a move to secularize St. John’s, insisting that all wisdom flowed from the Vatican. Cahill, who had a natural sympathy for Chang’s fiercely anti-Communist homeland, understood that her ties could help the university. In 1977, when she was 23, he tapped her to help direct the Asian Center as well as to be a fund-raiser who would court the wealthy Taiwanese community. And there was something else that attracted him to the youthful Chinese woman. If Cahill publicly preached orthodoxy, privately he had a roguish streak. Cahill, a man of the cloth, was also a man with a girlfriend—the two shared an address, property records indicate. Chang later claimed that she too had been intimate with Cahill, according to the Times, and one of his good-time friends. Cahill liked to gamble, and Chang accompanied him on trips to Belmont and Atlantic City, she later testified.
Father Harrington succeeded Cahill in 1989, just after Chang became an American citizen. Like Cahill, Harrington was a Vincentian, the Catholic order devoted to the poor. But Harrington was different, a friendly if bland public face with a welcoming smile. Unlike his predecessor, Harrington studiously avoided controversy. “Really I’m a CEO,” he later explained. Colleagues praised him for his strategic planning and cunning insights. “He has that rare ability to read people and situations,” Lou Carnesecca, St. John’s legendary basketball coach, once said.
Harrington expanded the Vincentian emphasis on the less fortunate—over 40 percent of the university budget goes to financial aid, among the highest for any private university—and even enrolled the homeless. But growth was his goal, and unlike Cahill, he made diversity and inclusion his watchwords. “Most of our student body is not Catholic,” he later boasted; St. John’s students come from 122 countries.
Until Harrington arrived, St. John’s was essentially a commuter school, best known nationally for its basketball team, which for a few glorious years starred Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson. When Harrington arrived, the university had a meager $74 million endowment; a gifted fund-raiser, he quickly changed that. In 2012, the endowment was $400.5 million. Harrington used that money to transform the university’s physical landscape, building dormitories and a gleaming new church, decorated with a mosaic of Vincentian history, and renovating the sports arena. At the main campus, in the heart of Queens, he established a green and leafy enclave with benches, bike racks, and manicured lawns, a stunning suburban expanse in the midst of the city bustle—Harrington thought of it as an oasis. And Harrington took the Queens institution global, as well as merging with or acquiring other campuses in New York. He expanded to Rome and Paris and sent emissaries—including Chang—around the world to spread the good news and to seek funds.
Chang was a perfect fit with Harrington’s new global goals. Soon after he took over as president came news the Taiwanese government had donated almost $700,000 to St. John’s, the first of many gifts. For Harrington, empowering Chang made flawless sense. “At that time … people [still] think Asia is the future,” Harrington later testified.
Before his departure, Cahill counseled Harrington on how to handle his new charge, telling his successor that Chang operated by her own rules. “Trust her. Let her do her job, and she’ll bring in money,” he told Harrington.
In one of their first meetings, Harrington got a glimpse of Chang’s rules. She worked her usual charms, deploying her ever-present smile, politeness, and over-the-top compliments. (“I know of no one as diplomatic or as articulate as you,” she once wrote to Harrington.) Then, as she was leaving, Chang presented her new boss with a gift-wrapped package. Harrington opened it later—and found a stack of $100 bills.
Harrington summoned Chang back to his office and, he later testified, told her the gift was not appropriate. Harrington, who’d taken a vow of poverty, lives in a modest communal house with other priests and receives $200 a month, ample for his necessities, he said. “I don’t need anything, Cecilia, I’m really fine,” he later explained to her. Plus, the nature of her gift made him uneasy. “I have a hang-up on cash … there has to be a record.”
Harrington testified that Chang was wounded by the rejection. “I want to work well with you,” he recalled her saying. “I don’t see why this is wrong.” She insisted that in Chinese culture wealthy women have to give gifts to their bosses. She liked to tap her handbag, signaling that she had plenty of wealth to dispense.
“I pledge to you that I … will do my best to understand [Chinese culture] going forward,” he told her.
Chang wanted Harrington to accept the cash.
“Give it to the poor,” he told her.
Later, she handed him another envelope. “This is for the poor,” she said.
Harrington counted the money—$2,000 in cash.
“I have a drawer in my office, which I keep locked, where, when people give me money for the poor,” he testified, “that’s where I put it.” He didn’t make a record, didn’t even count the amounts of subsequent gifts—he couldn’t recall how many envelopes he’d received over the years, maybe a half-dozen—and never reported them to the university. The reason, he told the court, was that he accepted the money in his auspices as a priest. “This was not connected to St. John’s,” he said.
Not many fund-raisers would get far if they depended on pure charity—usually, the donor must feel he or she is receiving something. Chang was more transactional than most. “They were basically selling honorary degrees,” says Mahler. Chang’s straightforward approach worked best with Asian businessmen eager to put Dr. in front of their names, especially from an American university.
Another weapon in Chang’s arsenal was Harrington himself. A striking silver-haired figure in his black clerical garb, Harrington didn’t dominate a room. But in a face-to-face meeting, he was unmatched. Like a skilled politician, he remembered everyone’s name, as well as the names of their children and pets. Every year or two, Chang took him on a ten-day swing through Asia. For Chang, it was a chance to impress her boss with her many important connections, and she planned every detail, pampering the entourage with the best of everything, explaining that donors were underwriting many of the gifts. She booked the St. John’s contingent, including Harrington and Wile and other priests, and one year her son, at the very best hotels—the Peninsula or the Regent, reserving the presidential suite for Harrington at times.
Harrington said he protested the luxury. “I just wasn’t real comfortable being who I am and how I am dressed going out of a hotel like that,” he later testified. But Chang had a different view of Harrington. Chang felt he welcomed a break from the enforced poverty—creature comforts appealed to him. And she worked hard to allay his concerns. “She assured me that this was very important for the people who were visiting because it would impact on the image of St. John’s University as a first-class university if we stayed at those places. I didn’t fight that.”
In court, Harrington presented himself as both a busy CEO commanding 3,100 employees and a naïf, unsophisticated in the ways of the world. He called himself “a kind of Brooklyn guy,” and mentioned his hearing aids. He professed to be shocked at the culture he found himself in. “Quite honestly, I was amazed at it. I had heard that gift-giving was a very, very strong part of the Chinese tradition and culture, but I saw it in practice. I told Cecilia I had to rely on her to guide me through this because I did not know the Chinese culture, and I had to know what was appropriate or not appropriate.”
So the gift horse was not looked in the mouth—and the gifts kept coming. Year after year, Chang ordered suits for Harrington from Modestos Limited and Sam’s Tailor, two of Hong Kong’s best tailors. Again, he was reluctant. “I asked what that was about, and Cecilia indicated that our friends in Hong Kong are honored by the visit from the president and the delegation, and the way they show that is by having suits made for them and presenting that as a gift,” explained Harrington in court.
According to a bill provided by Modestos Limited, Wile and the priests accounted for $50,503 over the twenty years the group had been visiting—roughly $13,000 of it for Harrington. Wile, who had expensive tastes, picked up three suits on one trip that cost twice as much as Harrington’s did—$900 for one and two for $950—and $375 for three shirts, a total of $3,050, according to a January 18, 2000, bill from Modestos Limited. Chang also bought suits for several priests at Sam’s Tailor, another favorite shop. (A St. John’s spokesperson disputed the total, saying that a review of receipts in Chang’s office showed that the cost of clothing for the St. John’s delegation at both Modestos Limited and Sam’s was not more than $20,000 over the two decades, and that some charges were reimbursed to Chang by priests.)
The gifts weren’t just bestowed by Chang. She encouraged Harrington to get a Taishin credit card, arguing that it would serve as an overseas backup to the university-issued American Express card. Harrington resisted, but then said Wile would carry around one of the Taishin cards. “The conditions were that … both Cecilia and I would know about it before it was used,” Harrington testified.
Harrington had developed a close working relationship with Wile, whom he’d hired in 1999, the year he graduated from St. John’s. They were a good fit. Wile, square-shouldered and athletic—he’d helped lead the St. John’s soccer team to an NCAA championship—was personable and easygoing, a complement to the stiffer, more formal Harrington. Donors liked him, as did their kids. Harrington enjoyed his open manner, too, and they became friends outside the office—it was a father-son relationship, some said.
In 2004, Harrington appointed Wile, not far past 25, his chief of staff; even before that, Wile put Chang’s credit-card account to work. A year earlier, he’d made charges at a restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey ($953.93); a liquor store in Westbury, Long Island ($455.66); and an Exxon Mobil station in Flushing ($35.66). There was an expense in Las Vegas ($270.99) and another for a Thai bistro in Forest Hills ($116.72), among others.
In late May 2003, Wile racked up the heftiest charge that year, $8,474.82 in Turks and Caicos, most of it at the Point Grace hotel, a luxury resort where he and Father Harrington spent a few days. That vacation was shortly after Harrington’s father died, and Chang, ever attentive to his needs, urged Harrington to take a vacation, assuring him that in Chinese culture it was customary to offer a gift to someone who’s lost a close family member—Harrington testified that he reported gifts to his local religious superior in accordance with his vow of poverty but declined to comment on whether he’d reported the Turks and Caicos vacation. When Wile wanted to bring along his girlfriend, Harrington—just as he did for himself and Wile—booked her flight with points from his St. John’s American Express card. Chang, of course, passed the expense for the vacation on to the university.
Two years later, in 2005, Wile went on a shopping spree in Hong Kong. He spent $1,201.99 at Ermenegildo Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Hermès, and others. The next year, he dropped $1,200 at Prada. In June 2008, he billed $2,367.29 to Chang’s account after stops at Lanvin in Hong Kong. Wile’s purchases were for him and his wife. Wile, who testified before a Queens County grand jury and received state immunity, later explained to investigators, “It was incredibly stupid, but Cecilia said, ‘Go ahead, you deserve it,’ and said it was all covered by donors,” according to an account of the conversation. And then, too, his boss, Father Harrington, approved his purchases, either before or immediately after.
Harrington had, by then, developed a deep trust in Wile. They’d gone into a real-estate venture together. They registered GRH Group LLC with an address at Wile’s then-home in Tenafly, New Jersey, and in February 2006 purchased a house at 59 Ridge Road in the Jersey-shore town of Rumson. They paid $659,000, according to county records, leveled the old house, built a new one, and two years later, in February 2008, flipped the property for $1,470,000, which after mortgages and a down payment netted about $200,000, though Harrington said through a St. John’s spokesman that he made no profit.
That Chang benefited from her elaborate subterfuge is clear—to the tune of over $1 million, charged the Queens D.A., though it was probably double that. But she didn’t appear to make money from the couple of hundred thousand dollars in gifts to Harrington, Wile, and other university officials—that was more in the way of managing up. Chang seemed sure she was fulfilling their wishes. “With our delegation,” she testified, “go to Hong Kong, we go to the jewelry shop. Whatever they walk around they pick up, so I just pick up the bill.”
Among the expensive road-trip party favors, luxury watches were a particular specialty. “She explained to me that a watch has very special significance in terms of a gift in Asia because of its long life,” Harrington testified. “I never understood it fully, but I respected it because that’s what she said.”
Harrington testified that he assumed the watches were gifts from Samson Sun, a Hong Kong watch merchant and honorary-degree recipient—“a wonderful, wonderful man,” Harrington said—but didn’t ask. It wasn’t Sun, though. In an e-mail, Sun wrote, “I was not the donor of any watches to Father Harrington or the St. John’s people.”
Harrington chose a Patek Philippe estimated to be worth around $5,000 and, during a June 2008 trip, an equally pricey Omega platinum Case Gent’s, though he later sounded as if he’d been forced to accept them. “I don’t use it,” he said of the Omega. On one trip, Wile received a stainless-steel Rolex Submariner.
Chang knew that on the way home from Asia, Harrington always stopped in Hawaii for a few days to avoid the jet lag that he said otherwise lasted ten days. In June 2008, Harrington and his contingent booked a Four Seasons in Hawaii. Usually the university picked up the bill, but that year Chang volunteered to pay—she said there was an unnamed donor. Wile put the $13,000-plus on Chang’s account. Harrington said he thought he was saving the university money, though Chang billed it to St. John’s.
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.”
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.