Scandal at St. John’s University: Corruption, Apostasy, and Death

Barraged by headlines like the New York Post’s “St. John’s Dean of Mean, Cecilia Chang, Commits Suicide,” most New Yorkers remain bewildered by the facts surrounding a sordid story of money, power and status seeking at St. John’s University.  Last October, The New York Times reported that Dr. Chang, a longtime Dean of the Institute of Asian Studies and the Vice President for International Relations at St. John’s University, was found dead of an apparent suicide inside her Queens home.  The dean’s suicide occurred a day after testifying in her own defense in a trial for embezzling more than $1 million from the university, stealing $250,000 from a Saudi prince to organize academic conferences that never occurred, using university credit cards to cover gambling losses at Connecticut casinos, and using international students as her personal servants in her home in exchange for tuition grants. 

Sordid as this story is, it is really just a small part of a much larger scandal.  The release of an article in New York Magazine by Steve Fishman last month reveals information that is even more damaging to the reputation of St. John’s University.  Writing that Chang “took care of everyone she met, everyone she needed,” Fishman points out that those she took care of best included Fr. Donald Harrington, the president of St. John’s and Rob Wile, his young chief of staff.  Providing them with vacations at Point Grace hotel, Turks and Caicos, vacations at the Four Seasons, Hawaii, Rolex and Patek Phillippe watches, envelopes with $100 bills, custom suits from Modestos Limited and Sam’s Tailor, and cases of Ramey Chardonay, Chang knew exactly how to gain power on the Queens campus—and beyond.

New York Daily News dean ChangAccording to Fishman, Chang arrived on the St. John’s campus in August, 1975 as “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 said one colleague.”  Smart enough to understand the status strivings of St. John’s University, Chang was able to convince administrators there that she was their ticket to attaining upward mobility by creating a new commitment to globalization in Asia.  Claiming that she had an “illustrious bloodline, which she claimed connected her to Chiang Kai-shek, a founder of modern Taiwan,” Chang wore mink or sable coats to campus as she completed her M.B.A in business and a few years later, a doctorate in education from Columbia.

To understand her dramatic upward mobility, Fishman suggests that, “She was like a courtesan…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.  Fishman also suggests that she convinced Fr. Joseph Cahill, the former president of St. John’s, that she would be the best one to direct the Asian Center as well as to be a fund-raiser who could best court the wealthy Taiwanese community.  Chang was only 23 at the time.

 

When Fr. Harrington succeeded Fr. Cahill as president, Fishman suggests that Chang was a perfect fit with his upwardly mobile goals for St. John’s as a premier global university:   “growth was his goal, and unlike Cahill, he made diversity and inclusion his watchwords.”  Fishman said that Fr. Harrington used to boast that “most of our student body is not Catholic,” bragging that St. John’s students come from 122 countries.

Soon after Fr. Harrington took over as president, Fishman points out that the Taiwanese government donated almost $700,000 to St. John’s.  In his testimony at her trial, Fr. Harrington said: “At that time, people thought Asia was the future.” According to articles on the St. John’s scandal published in The New York Times, the New York Post, and New York Magazine, Fr. Harrington and his young chief of staff were two of the primary recipients of Cecilia Chang’s largesse.

By far the most damning of the reportage is the New York Magazine piece because the author, Steve Fishman, suggests that both Fr. Harrington, and Rob Wile, chief of staff to the president were central figures in the scandal involving Chang because they personally benefited from her fraudulent activities. In his testimony, Fr. Harrington admitted that Chang would give him envelopes filled with $100 dollar bills—for the poor.  He claimed that, “I have a drawer in my office, which I keep locked, where when people give me money for the poor, that’s where I put it.”  He also said he did not make a record nor even count the amounts of subsequent gifts he received from Chang over the years.  Claiming that he accepted the money in his auspices as a priest, he rationalized that “this was not connected to St. John’s.”

Beyond the cash gifts, Fishman reported that Chang also treated Fr. Harrington to expensive trips to Asia every year or two.  She would book the St. John’s contingent including Harrington and his young chief of staff at the very best hotels—the Peninsula or the Regent, reserving the presidential suite for Harrington.  Harrington said he “protested the luxury—I just wasn’t real comfortable being who I am and how I am dressed going out of hotel like that.” 

Fishman reported that Chang also provided President Harrington with suits from Modestos Limited and Sam’s Tailor, two of Hong Kong’s best tailors.  Rob Wile, who was described by Fishman as having “expensive tastes,” purchased three suits on one trip—$900 for one and two for $950.  He also purchased three shirts for $375—all of it paid for by Chang, who then passed the expense for the vacations and the clothing on to the university.  Chang also purchased expensive watches for the two.  During a June, 2008 trip, Fr. Harrington chose an Omega platinum Case Gent’s watch.  This, on top of the $5,000 Patek Philippe watch Chang had already bought for him.  Wile received a stainless steel Rolex Submariner.

These are only a few of the long lists of gifts that Chang showered on her employers.  Wile, who testified before a Queens County grand jury and received state immunity for his testimony explained to investigators that “It was incredibly stupid, but Cecilia said, “Go ahead you deserve it,” and said it was all covered by donors.”  

Chang treated herself well also.  According to The New York Times, a federal agent, Kenneth Hosey, testified at trial that Chang spent a great deal of time at Foxwoods Casino, where she would frequently call her office at St. John’s from a casino suite and request bank withdrawals just shy of $10,000, the amount at which financial institutions must report a transaction to the government. Hosey said that students would then come to Connecticut to deliver the money, and that Chang subsequently bought into casino games for the same amounts. 

The Times also reported that Dr. Chang used donor money to pay $20,300 toward her son’s law school tuition and to buy him a car.  The university even paid for veterinary bills for her son’s small dog, which once bit a graduate student so severely that she required hospital treatment. 

New York Daily News president HarringtonIn her defense, Chang protested that St. John’s gave her credit cards to spend money that she had raised in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  She accused Fr. Harrington of using her “to create money for them for their personal gain.”  According to Fishman, Chang believed that she had a special relationship with Fr. Harrington and his chief of staff.  When his Patek Philippe broke, she had it repaired (at a cost of $1,638) and when his chief of staff’s shirt cuffs were too wide, she had them fixed.  Things fell apart for Chang—and for St. John’s—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 a credit card that were different from the ones Chang had submitted. It was clear that Chang was spending much more than she was bringing in through her development efforts.  And, much of that over-spending was being spent on Fr. Harrington and his chief of staff.

It was clear that Chang was going to be convicted—based partly on the testimony against her by Fr. Harrington and Wile.  She must have known that.  But, this story is far from over.  The release of the Fishman article in New York Magazine earlier this month brought such anger from the St. John’s community that Fr. Harrington responded on March 8, 2013 in a: “Statement from Fr. Harrington Concerning Cecilia Chang Update.”   Claiming that he cannot comment on the media allegations, Fr. Harrington wrote, “There is a lot that I would like to say in connection with the issues that have been raised.  However, in response to the new reports, the Board of Trustees, with my full support, has engaged Frank Wohl of the law firm Lankler, Siffert and Wohl to review certain issues and provide advice going forward.”

Fr. Harrington has tried to reassure the university community that the institution’s investigation revealed that Cecilia Chang acted alone in her fraudulent activity. Pledging  “full cooperation and support to the various investigators including the Queens District Attorney, the US Attorney, the FBI, and the IRS,” Fr. Harrington concluded his statement by writing that, “We have full confidence in the comprehensive investigations that were done by each of those law enforcement agencies, which found that the wrongdoing was limited to Cecilia Chang.”

The Real Scandal at St. John’s
While the media have focused on the financial improprieties surrounding Cecilia Chang, the disgraced dean at the center of corruption charges at the University, the real story of money, power, and status at St. John’s goes far beyond Ms. Chang.   

In Fishman’s New York Magazine article, entitled “St. John’s Officials Took Secret Loans,” he claims that Rob Wile, the chief of staff to the president of St. John’s University, who was a central figure in the scandal involving Chang (having received immunity from prosecution to testify against Chang in her trial), also benefited from no-interest loans from others connected to the university.  Fishman reported that Wile solicited—and received—a $100,000 loan from the former chairman of the St. John’s Board of Trustees, and an $80,000 loan from a contractor who did work for the university.  Fishman also claims that Wile did not disclose these loans to university officials. 

Fishman claims that Wile used the loan from the former board chairman to help fund a real estate venture he had engaged in with university president Fr. Harrington. In 2006, GRH Group LLC, a partnership of Wile and Fr. Harrington, bought a property in the Jersey shore town of Rumson. The home was torn down, rebuilt using the funds from the loan he received, and sold for a profit of $200,000.  According to Fishman, the partnership was not disclosed.  

This was not the last time Wile received interest free loans.  In 2008, Fr. Harrington recommended Wile for another interest-free loan, this one for $250,000. This loan was approved by the audit committee. But, St. John’s University’s IRS 990 reporting form for 2010, indicates that Robert Wile had received a loan of $350,000—but had only paid back $100,000 still owing a balance of $250,000 in 2010.  By 2012, Wile still had not paid the $80,000 interest free loan he received six years earlier.

It is difficult for most of us to understand why Wile needed all of these loans.  According to Guidestar.com, in 2008, he was already making more than $360,000 a year. And, by 2010, Wile was the second highest paid individual at the university—with a salary of more than $500,000—second only to the basketball coach.  According to St. John’s IRS reports in 2010—the last year Guidestar lists on its site—Wile earned a base salary of $325,960, a bonus of $25,000, as well as $150,000 in “other” compensation, deferred compensation of $7,000, and non-taxable benefits of $41,131 for a total yearly compensation package of $549,368. This salary reflected a raise of almost $200,000 over his compensation package of $362,638 in 2008.

The huge raise likely reflects the fact that Wile’s duties expanded in 2009, when Fr. Harrington promoted him from his position as his chief of staff, to a position as senior vice president for institutional development and chief of staff.  As senior vice president, Wile is a member of the president’s cabinet and oversees all athletics, development and alumni relations activities at the university.  This was quite an important position for a young man just 10 years out of college.  But, Wile had been hand-picked by Fr. Harrington to work in the president’s office shortly after his graduation from St. John’s in 1999.   He had risen rapidly—being promoted to serve as Fr. Harrington’s chief of staff to the president since 2004—only five years after graduation.

Wile is not the only young man who was chosen for greatness by Fr. Harrington.  James Pellow was an undergraduate at Niagara University (a Vincentian university like St. John’s) at the same time Fr. Harrington was working there. According to reports by students who knew them, Fr. Harrington was a priest in residence in the Niagara dormitories when Pellow lived there. Graduating in 1983 with an undergraduate degree in business, and an MBA in 1986, Pellow spent a few years working as an accountant for Coopers and Lybrand in Boston, and as a municipal bond trader with Chapdelaine and Company in New York City before arriving at St. John’s in 1991. Pellow became so indispensable to St. John’s that by the time he left the university twenty years later, he was the executive vice president and chief operating officer receiving a salary and benefits totaling $752,507.

Like Wile, Pellow also received no-interest loans.  According to the 2009 IRS 990 form, a loan of $300,000 was made to Pellow.  This loan was declared to the IRS the same year that Pellow made a total compensation package of $745,445. A year later, in 2010, Pellow made $448,268 in base salary, $150,000 in bonus compensation, $90,282 in “other” compensation, $16,500 in deferred compensation and $47,457 in non-taxable benefits for a total compensation package of $752,507 for the year. Pellow also declared on the IRS form that he served as a director on one other board.  According to Forbes, Pellow has served as a director of SAVVIS, Inc, where in 2010, he earned $75,000 in fees, $59,987 in stock awards for a total compensation package of $134,987.  This was in addition to the more than $750,000 from St. John’s.  Forbes also lists Pellow as a director at Cryo-Cell International, Inc. 

In an effort to explain these compensation packages to the IRS, St. John’s reported in their Form 990 Part VI, Section B filing, that “an external consultant is contracted to compile survey data from educational, not-for-profit and peer institutions as well as information on other Form 990s to establish comparable compensation ranges.”  But, an analysis done for Crisis readers of the compensation packages awarded to senior administrators at Catholic peer institutions reveals that salaries and bonuses given to Wile and Pellow are much higher than those given to senior administrators at similar Catholic universities. For example, DePaul University, a Chicago university with annual revenues of $667,935,545 (as reported to the IRS in 2011) is a peer to St. John’s University that reported annual revenues of $634,474,012 to the IRS in 2011. Yet, DePaul’s Chief of Staff/Vice President of Planning and Presidential Administration earned a total compensation of $218,325—less than half of Wile’s $549,368 compensation package, and a fraction of Pellow’s 2009 compensation package of $752,507.  At Fordham, another peer institution (with annual revenues of $800,316,061 as reported to the IRS in 2011), there is not a single senior administrator—including the provost himself—whose compensation comes close to that awarded to Pellow and Wile.  Likewise, Pellow and Wile’s compensation exceeds the compensation paid to the Provost, the Sr. VP for Advancement, the Sr. VP for Administrative Services, the Sr. VP for Finance and CFO, the Sr. VP for Capital Planning, and the Sr. VP, General Counsel at Loyola University of Chicago (with annual revenues of $605,865,191 as reported to the IRS in 2011). And, at St. Louis University (with annual revenues of $829,961,737 as reported to the IRS in 2011), there is one administrator (VP of Medical Affairs) who has a larger compensation package than Wile.  Most senior administrators at SLU are paid much less than the compensation paid at St. John’s to Wile and Pellow.    

The scandal at St. John’s will continue as long as questions about conflict of interest, undisclosed loans, and excessive compensation remain.  Yet, the saddest part of this story is what can happen to a Catholic university when strivings for status through globalization, diversity, or inclusion trump the need to remain faithful to a strong Catholic identity.  Fr. Harrington’s boastfulness over the fact that “most of our student body is not Catholic,” is actually the real scandal here because it is a betrayal of the commitment that Catholics—many of them Irish and Italian immigrants—made to build St. John’s University.  These Catholics constitute a kind of “community of memory” that reminds us all that the lack of attention to the original mission of St. John’s as a Catholic university designed to provide a Catholic education opened the door to the rest.

This founding mission is still articulated on the St. John’s website:  

We commit ourselves to create a climate patterned on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as embodied in the traditions and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Our community which comprises members of many faiths, strives for an openness which is “wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). 

Editor’s note: The photos above depict Dean Chang and  President Harrington. (Photo credit: New York Daily News.)

Anne Hendershott

By

Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

MENU