A former St. John’s University dean forced students to work as her personal servants under threat of losing scholarships, prosecutors said as the trial of Cecilia Chang started in Brooklyn, New York.
Chang, 59, faces charges of bribery and forced labor for allegedly demanding that recipients of discretionary scholarships serve as round-the-clock housekeepers and chauffeurs to her, her family and friends. She is also charged with lying on tax returns and to U.S. Internal Revenue Service agents and well as making false statements about bank accounts overseas and interfering with an IRS investigation, according to a 10-count indictment against her.
Chang “betrayed the very students she was supposed to mentor,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lan Nguyen told a jury of eight women and four men in opening statements today in federal court. “She took advantage of the university’s trust in her to engage in multiple criminal schemes.”
While serving as the university’s Asian studies dean and vice president for international relations, Chang had authority to grant scholarships to as many as 15 students each year, according to a criminal complaint filed in September 2010.
The students, many of whom were from overseas, received letters telling them they were “expected to perform duties assigned by the Vice President for International Relations and the dean of the Center of Asian Studies for a period of 20 hours per week,” the government said in the complaint. The letters also stated the “grant may be terminated at any time by the Dean if the recipient fails to perform his or her work duties,” according to the filing.
Officials of the Queens, New York-based university were under the impression that the work was related to the Asian studies program, the government said.
Between at least September 2007 and September 2010, Chang directed students to cook, clean, and wash clothing in her Queens home, act as a chauffeur for her, her son and others, answer her personal e-mails and conduct financial transactions for her, the government alleged.
“You will even hear that they were directed to hand-wash certain items, like the defendant’s underwear,” Nguyen told jurors today.
On one occasion, Chang had a student drive her son to the airport at 3 a.m., the government said. She also had students bring her cash while she was at Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Ledyard, Connecticut, the government alleged.
“Chang threatened the students and placed them in fear that if they refused to perform these personal services they would lose their scholarships and be unable to attend St. John’s,” FBI special agent Kenneth F. Hosey said in the complaint.
Undergraduate tuition at St. John’s is about $17,375 per semester for fall 2012 and spring 2013, according to the university’s website. The scholarships Chang awarded covered the full cost of tuition, prosecutors said.
Separately, Chang was accused in September 2010 of embezzling more than $1 million from St. John’s. Under a 205-count indictment, the Queens County District Attorney charged her with grand larceny in the first degree among other crimes over her alleged theft.
In the federal case, Chang is also accused of stealing from the university and trying to hide her crimes by creating documents or altering financial records, Nguyen said in her opening. Students were in some cases told to help with the cover-up, she said.
Chang’s lawyers said in court documents that the indictment is too general in describing the alleged bribery and forced labor charges.
Awarding scholarships in exchange for labor “was authorized by St. John’s” and “was not criminal in and of itself,” her former attorney, Barry Bohrer, wrote in the memorandum, which was filed May 6, 2011. Bohrer asked the court to dismiss part of the indictment. U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. denied that request in January.
One of Chang’s three new lawyers, Stephen Mahler, told jurors today that his client put much of her time and money into her former role and wasn’t given enough in resources from the university.
Students who did chores around her house “could come and go” and “could eat her food,” Mahler said.
“These poor slaves, the government says,” he said.
Wearing a black blazer and pants and seated next to her lawyers at the defense table, Chang appeared to grow emotional while Mahler was speaking and dabbed her face repeatedly with a tissue.
Chang was initially released on a $1.5 million bond in October 2010. She was sent to jail earlier this month, with prosecutors citing her alcohol use and their fear that she may flee. She was released on Oct. 5 under conditions that she not use or possess any alcohol in her home and that she begin alcohol abuse treatment, according to court records.
Chang had worked at the university since 1979, according to the May 6, 2011, memo.
The case is U.S. v. Chang, 1:11-cr-00067, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).