PHOTO BY PATRICK GIBLIN
Deborah Pierce, who ran the Confucius Institute at Webster University, has been indicted.
The 61-year-old St. Louis woman allegedly embezzled $380,000 by writing checks from the Institute to cash and to herself, as well as paying her own personal bills and and those of her family members from its accounts, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In September 2013, Pierce allegedly set up a separate, unauthorized bank account over which she had sole control and funneled Institute money to herself, the feds charge. She allegedly diverted money for nearly three years, from setting up the account until June 2016.
Last month — perhaps foreshadowing what was to come — Webster named a new interim director of the Institute, the Webster Journal reported
. No explanation was given in the story for Pierce's departure.
Webster University said this in a statement:
A federal grand jury in St. Louis handed down an indictment for federal fraud charges today, Nov. 16, against Deborah Trott Pierce, the former director of the Confucius Institute at Webster University. The indictment alleges Pierce took funds from the institute and redirected the money for her personal use.
In August, an internal audit at the university revealed funds intended for the institute and sent from the Chinese Ministry of Education had been redirected without the knowledge or authority of the university to an unauthorized bank account. After immediately conducting its own investigation, the university turned over evidence of these fraudulent transactions to the FBI and Postal Inspection Service. The university has cooperated fully with federal investigators.
The results of the university’s audit and investigation reveal the unauthorized diversion of these funds was the work of one employee working outside of any institutional processes. Pierce has resigned her position as the director of the institute and her husband resigned his position as director of governmental and business affairs for the institute. The university appointed an interim director.
As this incident involves an on-going legal case, officials at the university decline to comment further about what has occurred until after this case is decided. The university commends the work of the FBI, the Postal Inspection Service, and the United States Attorney’s Office in this matter.
The Confucius Institute was a joint venture between Webster and a cultural agency of the Chinese government, which sponsors an international network of more than 300 such institutes in 66 countries around the world. The Webster chapter has been honored twice by the Chinese government as its "institute of the year."
As the student newspaper previously reported, the institutes have come under fire for intruding on academic freedom and allegedly censoring some topics
Pierce was quoted in the Webster Journal
story defending the institute. “I understand why people have fears, I really do. I was a professor for 30 years and I would never, ever agree to anything that I felt meddled with academic freedom and would not be involved in anything where that was the case,” Pierce told the paper.
If convicted of mail fraud, Pierce faces up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 or both.
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to include a statement from Webster University.
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