The New York Times reports that former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski was among U.S. politicians and others associated with Cecilia Chang, a dean and fundraiser at St. John's University in Queens who committed suicide last month during her federal trial on fraud and theft charges. Documents published by The Times along with the story include a 2003 fundraising letter from Murkowski to the Taiwanese president that closely followed a draft provided by Chang; and a 2007 letter to Murkowski from Chang in which she asks him to seek Sen. Lisa Murkowski's help with an immigration application for an honorary alumni -- who she neglected to mention was a fugitive connected to a Taiwanese embezzlement investigation. That letter opens with a reminder that Murkowski's granddaughter is attending Chang's college on a full-tuition grant. Neither Murkowski returned calls from The Times seeking comment.
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM, WENDY RUDERMAN AND MOSI SECRET
The New York Times
NEW YORK — She sat in her regular beauty salon, strikingly optimistic, eyeing in the mirror not a defendant but a woman whose fortunes would surely turn the next day.
The evidence and testimony in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn had quickly mounted against her, but Cecilia Chang was convinced that once she took the stand at her corruption trial, things would change.
“She was extremely happy,” Eve Lin, her longtime hairdresser, recalled recently. “She said: ‘Tomorrow, I have a court case, and if they say I’ve done nothing wrong, then that’s it. It’s over.’”
As it turned out, Chang’s turn on the witness stand last month was disastrous. She was utterly unpersuasive. The jurors laughed. And she won little sympathy.
Chang, a dean at St. John’s University in Queens, associated with a whirlwind of characters: Catholic priests, Chinese gangsters, U.S. lawmakers, a Taiwanese general and a fantastically corrupt city politician, to name a few. She had been married three times. One husband, she had told several people, was involved in organized crime; another told the police before succumbing to gunshot wounds that she was behind the attack.
It was an unlikely lifestyle for anyone, let alone a dean at St. John’s, where she helped attract millions of dollars in contributions to the university from her native Taiwan.
But that life, prosecutors charged in separate state and federal indictments, was enabled by fraud and embezzlement. Federal prosecutors accused Chang of forcing foreign students to perform household labor in exchange for tuition grants, stealing more than $1 million from the university and taking $250,000 from a Saudi prince to organize academic conferences that never happened.
Less than 24 hours after testifying, Chang killed herself — an act of grisly determination. She started a fire in a bedroom fireplace and closed the flue. When death did not come quickly enough, she went downstairs to the kitchen and turned on the gas. For extra measure, she slit her wrists.
Stereo speaker wire was her final weapon of choice. She took a length of it back upstairs, lowered an attic ladder and hanged herself from it.
The descent from beauty-parlor optimism to suicide took less than two days. But even at her apex, Chang, 59, was a contradictory and complicated figure; a woman whose work got her name mentioned on the floor of the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s, and who was at the same time suspected by the police of having a role in the murder of her first husband — the father of her only child.
A FUND-RAISING JUGGERNAUT
Through much of the 1980s and ‘90s, Chang flew overseas chasing dollars for St. John’s and its Institute for Asian Studies, cultivating relationships with dignitaries, lawmakers and the superrich. When she was in New York, she rode around town in a Mercedes sedan. Abroad, she stayed in the finest hotels.
She was petite. Elegant. Forceful.
“She could walk into a room and dominate a conversation,” said Jonathan Derek, a former assistant of Chang’s who attended dinners where Chang entertained potential donors. “Just by being there, she was the center of attention.”
She made her home in Queens, in a $1.7 million Tudor-style house with seven bedrooms, maid quarters, stone fireplaces and soaring ceilings with skylights.
Yet in many ways, Chang was a woman out of place.
As her legal troubles mounted in recent years, she found friendship among bartenders and casino bus drivers. She would curry favor by lending money to people from Chinese communities in Flushing and to fellow gamblers at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, where she was spending more and more time.
And to her embarrassment, she never learned to speak English fluently, writing that she felt isolated from her colleagues, like a “money tree” that was shaken but never nurtured.
She came to New York in 1975, enrolling in the St. John’s master’s program in Asian studies.
For decades, the Asian studies department had been functioning as a diplomatic outpost for the nationalist government of Taiwan, an arrangement forged during the Cold War: The Vincentians, the Catholic religious order who ran St. John’s, were conservatives who allied with the nationalists in Taiwan against the Communists in China.
Taiwanese citizens, including Chang’s mother, helped raise money to build Sun Yat Sen Hall, the Chinese pagoda on St. John’s campus that became the Institute of Asian Studies. The Taiwanese government also sent hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to the university for its Asian studies program.
Chang was hired at St. John’s not long after graduating from its master’s program. Three years later, she was named a dean. A big part of her job was to keep the Taiwanese money flowing.
“She was perceived as an incredibly successful fundraiser: She raised millions for St. John’s, there is no doubt about that, and so she operated under a different set of rules,” said Gregory C. Pavlides, the head of the economic crimes bureau in the Queens district attorney’s office, who oversaw the investigation that led to a 205-count indictment. The state prosecution was delayed while the federal trial went forward.
St. John’s officials could not explain her rapid ascent, but Chang suggested that the university president at the time, the Rev. Joseph T. Cahill, had preferred an inexperienced candidate who would allow him more control of the Taiwanese money.
“They do not want to have good reputable scholar,” she wrote in memoir-style notes. “SJU only wanted me to be the dean,” she added, because she was perceived as a “money tree.”
“In Chinese, ‘money tree’ mean that a tree can grow money, and whoever shake it, the money will fall down,” she wrote.
One of the ways in which she raised money for the university was by offering honorary degrees to people of wealth or influence, then soliciting donations. Two such honorees were Taiwanese industrialists who were later charged with multimillion-dollar frauds.
The university gave her complete control of about 20 full-tuition grants each year. Many of the grants went to students from Taiwan; others went to the children of her friends or associates, including one given in 2004 to the granddaughter of Frank H. Murkowski, a former U.S. senator and governor of Alaska.
Murkowski was among more than two dozen or so members of Congress who had visited Sun Yat Sen Hall, giving talks at the pro-Taiwan conferences organized by Chang.
Documents from Chang’s files show how she leveraged relationships with powerful people like Murkowski.
In 2003, she apparently persuaded him to lobby the Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian, to continue financial support of the university. In her letter, she congratulated Murkowski, who was then governor, on his daughter’s election to the Senate and offered them both honorary degrees, saying “Only the world’s most prominent personalities are eligible to receive an honorary degree from St. John’s.”
Four years later, Chang asked him to enlist his daughter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to write a letter supporting the immigration application of “a St. John’s honorary alumni chairman.” Chang did not mention that the man, Wang You-Theng, a Taiwanese businessman then under investigation for embezzling millions of dollars, was a fugitive, and remains so today.
“Please let us know when the senator is having her next fundraiser party so that we may participate in her support,” she wrote. There was no indication that the senator wrote the letter.
Calls seeking comment from Lisa and Frank Murkowski were not returned.
Closer to home, she helped arrange trips to Taiwan for political delegations from Queens that included Donald Manes, the Queens borough president who committed suicide after his role in a far-reaching bribery scandal became public in 1986.
Sid Davidoff, a lawyer, lobbyist and longtime friend of Manes’, recalled that Chang served as the borough president’s political liaison to the Asian community in Queens. Chang was so close to Manes that when she renovated her Queens mansion, she asked him to manage the project, according to a former university colleague of hers who was not willing to be named. There was speculation that some of Chang’s business relationships extended into her personal life.
Indeed, in her handwritten notes, she wrote that she once had an intimate relationship with Cahill that included another woman employed by St. John’s. In addition to the sexual liaisons, Chang wrote that Cahill took her to the racetrack and to Atlantic City, usually removing his clerical garb “when we go out to play.”
Joseph Oliva, the general counsel for St. John’s, noted that Chang never mentioned the alleged relationship with Cahill, who died in 2003, in her testimony nor in any of several discussions that they had had about her tenure at the university.
“The university conducted a search of its records and has not found any information to support this uncorroborated allegation,” Oliva added.
AN UNSOLVED MURDER
Another jarring allegation would come from police investigators, who suspected her of having some role in the 1990 shooting death of her first husband, Ruey Fung Tsai, according to more than half a dozen law-enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is open.
They provided the following account:
Tsai was shot in front of a warehouse in Brooklyn, by a man dressed all in white. Three bullets struck him in the shoulder and back, with two hitting internal organs. Tsai somehow stumbled inside, where the police found him sitting in a chair.
“I know the man, I do not know his name,” Tsai said then. “Cecilia Chang was the person that paid the guy to shoot me.”
Tsai was taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where detectives visited him the next day. Unable to speak, he wrote that his wife wanted him dead so she could control the hosiery business that they shared, instead of dividing up the property in divorce court. He died 11 days after the shooting.
The couple left a trail of their enmity in divorce papers, filed by Tsai in October 1986. The records detail their dispute over millions of dollars in business proceeds and properties; a bitter custody battle over their son, Steven, then a toddler; and violent fights that brought the police to their house more than once.
An investigative firm, FTI Global Risk and Investigations, which the university hired to conduct a forensic examination of Chang’s expense accounts and other records, referred its findings to the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, in April 2010 and strongly urged a reinvestigation of Tsai’s killing, on the theory that Chang had a role.
One investigator who sifted through her 80 boxes of files said that more than a third of it was relevant or contained incriminating evidence linking her to the homicide of her first husband, the attempted bribery of Taiwanese officials in 2003 and the almost routine fraud that was detailed in her expense accounts. The investigator spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.
In 2001, she began spending more time at Foxwoods, where she found solace at the baccarat tables, drinking cognac at dinner and coffee at the high-stakes tables.
A federal agent testified at her trial that Chang would 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. The agent, Kenneth Hosey, said that students would come to Connecticut to deliver the money, and that she subsequently bought into casino games for the same amounts.
When a prosecutor asked her in court about the transactions, Chang said that they were intended to bring good fortune; the dollar amounts coincided with her lucky numbers: nine, eight and six.
People at Foxwoods remembered that she lent as much as $30,000 to fellow gamblers, and that she favored a dubious wagering strategy: doubling her bet each time she lost.
In 2010, Chang was indicted in Queens. When she tried to use her house as bail collateral, Pavlides argued that the mortgage was paid off with a $300,000 check from her second husband, Danny Lau, whose own lawyer, Pavlides explained, admitted that the money came from criminal ties.
At the same time, a related federal investigation was moving toward an indictment. A plea deal to settle both cases was discussed: Two to three years in state prison. She cycled through half a dozen lawyers who all advised her to accept, but Chang refused.
At the federal trial, her lawyers, Alan M. Abramson, Joel S. Cohen and Stephen R. Mahler, sought to portray her as a pawn of St. John’s, and suggested the only money she took from the university was to recover some of her unpaid fundraising expenses.
“If you spoke to her, she sincerely believed that this was owed to her and she had not done a thing wrong,” Mahler said.
Prosecutors offered evidence to the contrary.
Oliva, the university’s general counsel, testified that St. John’s had reimbursed Chang for $350,000 in purported business expenses a year, more than any other employee, and about 10 percent of business expenses for the entire university. Oliva found that many of those expenses went toward cash advances at casinos, lavish dinners, skiing and surfing trips for her son, Steven, and even subscriptions to dating websites.
Chang used donor money to pay $20,300 toward her son’s law school tuition and to buy him a car, prosecutors said. The university even paid for veterinary bills for her son’s small dog.
Other students who worked as chauffeurs and housekeepers for Chang in Queens testified that she had made them wash her underwear and cook for Steven.
Chang contended that St. John’s gave her credit cards to spend money that she had raised in Taiwan and Hong Kong. She accused Cahill and the university’s current president, the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, of using her to “create money for them for their personal gain.”
At trial, Harrington acknowledged that he had accompanied Chang on several trips to Asia, staying at the most expensive hotels and accepting gifts like a Patek Philippe watch and custom suits at Sam’s Tailor and Modestos in Hong Kong.
He explained that Chang had convinced him that it was customary in Chinese culture to give gifts and impolite to refuse them.
For most of the trial, Chang seemed optimistic, smiling often. By then, she was already considering suicide, court documents show.
In late September, her lawyers filed a letter under seal informing the judge, Sterling Johnson Jr., that one of the guarantors of Chang’s bond asked to be removed because Chang mentioned that she was contemplating suicide. The letter also raised concerns about Chang’s drinking, noting that she frequently came to meetings with Poland Spring bottles filled with vodka.
The lawyers asked that Chang undergo a detoxification treatment and be admitted to an inpatient substance-abuse program. A judge who later considered the matter instead ordered her to the federal jail. She was released a week later under the condition that she remain under house arrest and submit to daily alcohol testing.
Chang wrote of her love for her son in her suicide note, and expressed bitterness toward St. John’s for abandoning her. “She made repeated references to the fact that she worked there for 30 years,” a law-enforcement official said.
In death, on her bathroom floor, Chang’s face looked as if she were napping before her morning-court appearance. She wore a silky floral blouse paired with a black jacket. Her hair was neatly coifed. Her lipstick and rouge looked freshly applied, not at all smudged. There was barely a hint of anything askew, save for the shiny wire coiled around her throat like a necklace.
Kitty Bennett and Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.