An independent investigation has found the former president of St. John’s University and his top aide engaged in no criminal wrongdoing, but showed “errors in judgment” in their dealings with a university fundraiser who later committed suicide.
The investigation was led over several months by Frank Wohl, a Manhattan attorney hired by the university. The findings were released recently by Peter D’Angelo, St. John’s board chairman.
Under investigation were the Rev. Donald Harrington, president of the university until he stepped down in July, and Robert Wile, his chief of staff, who also resigned.
Harrington, 67, who served as president for 24 years, had acknowledged that he accepted lavish gifts from former Dean Cecilia Chang, who was on trial for numerous offenses and hanged herself last November after testifying in court.
Among the charges against Chang were that she forced foreign students on scholarships to do household duties for her and that she stole more than $1 million over the years from the university.
Trial testimony indicated that both men took lavish vacations and accepted watches and clothing from Chang. She was suspended in 2010 when a St. John’s internal audit uncovered evidence of missing money.
Harrington, who announced his retirement plans in May, said that the urgings of several members of the board persuaded him to stay longer than he had originally planned. “The difficulties for everyone during the past year have convinced me, after much prayer and reflection, that the time to leave the presidency has now come,” he said.
The Wohl findings determined that although St. John’s had policies in place about conflicts of interest, financial relationships and appropriate dealings with vendors, “there were errors in judgment by Rev. Donald Harrington and Robert Wile that led to conflicts of interest and failures to fully disclose those conflicts to the Board of Trustees.”
The “failures” included a real estate transaction involving both men; a short-term loan by a former board member to the two in connection with that real estate transaction; and a personal loan made by a university vendor to Wile.
The report found that none of the transactions caused financial harm to St. John’s.
Following the findings, the St. John’s board has asked Wohl and the university general counsel to make additional recommendations to ensure that the university maintains the highest ethical standards.
Meanwhile, the university continues its search for a new president. The Rev. Joseph Levesque, former president of Niagara University, is serving as interim president. The search is expected to take several months.