A former St. John’s University dean accused of lying about her income, cheating her employer and using students as unpaid servants told a federal jury in New York that she cared about students and the school.
Prosecutors alleged that Cecilia Chang, 59, a former Asian studies dean and vice president of international affairs at the Queens, New York-based school, stole donations intended for the university, lied on tax forms and made students work in her home as a condition of receiving full-tuition scholarships.
Chang testified today that about 19 students worked for her each year as drivers, house-cleaners and office workers, with some also living in her home. Most were children of friends and relatives, she told the jury in federal court in Brooklyn.
“Always one or two students who couldn’t afford rent live in my house,” she said from the stand. “They’re very close friends to me.”
Chang had worked since 1979 at St. John’s, the second largest Catholic college by enrollment in the U.S. after Chicago’s DePaul University, according to CollegeStats.org.
Federal prosecutors brought their case against her in September 2010. She faces a 10-count indictment including bribery, forced labor and tax charges. The most serious charge, forced labor, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
During about three weeks of testimony, witnesses for the government included the university’s president, the Reverend Donald Harrington, and students who worked for Chang, including one who said one of her tasks was hand-washing the former dean’s underwear.
The government alleged that students were also regularly asked to deliver items to Chang at Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Ledyard, Connecticut. During her testimony today, Chang said she spent much of her time either traveling overseas or at the casino entertaining guests.
“When I don’t have important events, I live at Foxwoods,” she said.
“Are you saying you used this as a home base?” her lawyer Stephen Mahler asked.
“Almost,” she said.
Defense lawyers have argued that Chang played an important role in raising money for the university and financed some of her international outreach work out of her own pocket. Asking scholarship students to take on work responsibilities wasn’t illegal and the students were generally happy with the arrangement, they said.
Chang had the authority to grant about 15 full-tuition scholarships each year, according to court papers. University officials were under the impression that the work she asked them to do was related to the Asian studies program, the government said.
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.
Undergraduate tuition at St. John’s is about $17,375 a semester for fall 2012 and spring 2013, according to the university’s website.
In her capacity as a fundraiser, Chang said today she brought in about $20 million for the university over the past several years. In 2008, Chang told Harrington that she had spent about $120,000 of her owns funds on various expenses associated with making contacts abroad, according to her testimony today.
Some of the costs that she bore included jewelry and clothing for Harrington and other university officials, which she bought when they were traveling abroad, Chang said today. Harrington testified earlier in the trial that he had met with Chang partly to express concern about her expense submissions.
During the trial, prosecutors showed evidence that Chang solicited donations for her own organization, the Global Development Initiative Foundation, under the pretense that it was affiliated with the university. Harrington and other university employees testified that the foundation wasn’t authorized to solicit funds on the university’s behalf and that money it collected wasn’t recorded in the university’s books.
Chang is also accused of trying to hide her crimes by creating documents or altering financial records, prosecutors said. Students were in some cases told to help with the coverup, they said.
The case is U.S. v. Chang, 1:11-cr-00067, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).