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St. John’s prez clears name

An independent probe paints former St. John's University President the Rev. Donald Harrington cleared of any wrongdoing despite errors in judgment.
TimesLedger Newspapers

An independent law firm’s investigation into the case of a late St. John’s University dean and fund-raiser who killed herself during her embezzlement trial found former President the Rev. Donald J. Harrington and Chief of Staff Rob Wile made “errors in judgment,” which “led to conflicts of interest,” but no criminal wrongdoing.

Both Harrington and Wile came under scrutiny when 57-year-old Cecilia Chang was accused of forcing foreign students to perform household duties in exchange for scholarship money as well as stealing more than $1 million from the school. She later hanged herself after taking the stand at her federal trial back in November.

Two New York Magazine articles accused the former president of ignoring Chang’s crimes while also taking gifts and vacations from her because she was raising more than $20 million for the Catholic school. But those claims were silenced after the university announced the findings of Frank Wohl, a partner in the Manhattan-based law firm of Lankler Siffert & Wohl.

“There were errors in judgement by the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, and Robert Wile that led to conflicts of interest and failures to fully disclose those conflicts to the board of trustees,” St. John’s board of trustees Chairman Peter P. D’Angelo said in a statement.

The university said the conflicts included a real estate transaction between Harrington and Wile, a short-term loan by a former member of the board of trustees to the two in connection with that transaction and a personal loan made by a university vendor made out to Wile.

“Mr. Wohl found that none of these transactions caused financial harm to the university,” D’Angelo said.

Harrington, 67, announced his retirement in May and effectively stepped down July 31 after more than two decades at the helm of the Queens university since his arrival in 1989. Wile also resigned over the summer.

The college has been searching for a full-time replacement for Harrington — a process D’Angelo said would continue over the coming months. Until then, the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, will serve as interim president, the school said.

D’Angelo also said Wohl’s report found that no one at the university was aware of Chang’s alleged fraud scheme.

“He found that her fraud was facilitated by the failure to require strict compliance by Chang with the university’s financial controls,” D’Angelo’s statement said. “In addition, various university personnel accepted personal gifts from Cecilia Chang, which created the appearance of conflicts of interest. Where appropriate, the recipients of those gifts have voluntarily agreed to make restitution to the university.”

The St. John’s board of trustees chairman said the school took swift measures after the Chang case arose by revising the conflict of interest policy, implementing a business ethics training program and instituting an employee procurement card program to replace employee credit cards.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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Anita Maier- Bischoff from Long Island, N.Y. says:
The August 2013 letter from the Board of Trustees to the alumni community regarding the outcome of events relating to the Chang scandal is demeaning and an affront to intelligence. To say that Fr.Harrington and Mr. Wile made 'errors in judgment' is an understatement. "Restitution where appropriate!!" Will Sotheby's be auctioning the collection of Patek Phillipe and Rolex watches, the custom made Hong Kong suits, the wines, the trips to Hawaii and Turks/Caicos with stays at the Four Seasons? What about all the envelopes with uncounted cash? I am disgusted, outraged and saddened that this could occur at my alma mater. AMB, class of 65
Aug. 30, 2013, 9:03 am

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