Dr. Cecilia Chang, 57, a former St. John's University vice...

Dr. Cecilia Chang, 57, a former St. John's University vice president and dean, was arrested on grand larceny and forgery charges. (Sept. 15, 2010) Credit: Uli Seit

A former top official at St. John's University used her control over scholarships to force students to act as her personal servants, cleaning her house and chauffeuring her as part of a work requirement, federal prosecutors charged Thursday.

Cecilia Chang, 57, a onetime top fundraiser, vice president and dean of Asian studies who was charged by state prosecutors in Queens in September with stealing $1 million, was accused of violating federal forced-labor and bribe-taking laws.

The recipients of 15 scholarships she handed out - mostly Asian students - were required to cook, clean and wash clothes at Chang's $1.7-million Jamaica Estates home, drive for her and her law-student son, answer personal e-mails and conduct personal banking to fulfill a scholarship requirement of 20 hours of work per week.

"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," prosecutors said in a complaint in federal court in Brooklyn.

Queens prosecutors charged last month that Chang, a leading fundraiser in Asia who was suspended by St. John's in January, had diverted donations - including a $250,000 gift from a Saudi prince - into personal accounts, and had charged thousands in personal bills to her expense account.

Chang was released from state custody on Monday after making bail, but was held Thursday on the federal charges until she can put together a $1.5-million bail package that must include two properties posted by friends. A lien has been put on her house to secure the money she allegedly stole from St. John's.

Prosecutor Charles Kleinberg said Chang holds both U.S. and Taiwanese passports, and had told a St. John's official that she was ready to flee to Taiwan - which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

"She's putting her skates on and getting ready to go," he said.

Chang did not enter a plea, but defense lawyer Ron Rubenstein said the case involved an unusual use of federal forced-labor laws. He said his client - a divorced St. John's grad with a master's from Columbia University - frequently had dignitaries and donors stay at her home, so housekeeping duties may have been legitimate.

"If they are in a work-study program, and this is what they're doing, who is to say that's not their work?" Rubenstein said. ". . . Cooking the meal, it doesn't sound like work-study. But wait for the trial."

St. John's, in a statement, described Chang as a 30-year employee who had been a trusted official until earlier this year. "If these allegations by federal authorities are true," the statement said, "Ms. Chang's treatment of some students and the environment she created are shocking and in complete violation of all the university stands for."

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