December 7, 2019

Former Confucius Institute head Deborah Pierce pleads not guilty to embezzlement

The former head of Webster University’s Confucius Institute has asked for four extensions in her embezzlement trial since entering a plea of not guilty.

Deborah Pierce’s most recent extension was filed March 23, asking for an additional 30 days to review the evidence in her case. None of the four motions were opposed by the prosecution.

Pierce was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for embezzling more than $380,000 during her time as the director of Confucius Institute. She left Webster in October 2016; in November, she was arrested on federal fraud charges.

Thomas Albus, the U.S. attorney working on the case, said he expects it to move forward in the near future.

“Either Ms. Pierce will plead guilty or the case will go to trial within 90 days,” Albus said.

In the most recent motion filed, Pierce’s lawyers requested additional material for the government on the accounting records of Webster University’s operation of Confucius Institute. 

“The government expects to disclose these records no sooner than two to three weeks from today’s date [March 23],” the motion states.

Albus said the trial has been delayed several times because it is a complex issue, dealing with many documents over a large number of years, and Pierce’s attorneys likely want more time to review the available evidence.

Adam Fein, one of Pierce’s lawyers, has requested a number of disclosures from the government which may be used in the prosecution, including financial records from the Confucius Institute, Webster University and Commerce Bank.

Webster initially reported the embezzlement to the FBI and has fully cooperated with the investigation, Albus said.

The Confucius Institute, the program Pierce worked for, is a jointly-funded collaboration between Webster and the Chinese government dedicated to promoting Chinese language and culture. According to the initial DOJ press release, Pierce had sole control over the Confucius Institute’s funds.

“Between September 2013 and June 2016, it is alleged that Pierce diverted more than $380,000 to herself from the Institute’s funds by writing checks to cash, checks to herself, and paying various personal bills and accounts and those of her family members,” a press release from the Eastern District of Missouri office of the U.S. Department of Justice stated at the time.

Pierce was arrested Dec. 28, 2016 and released on bond the same day. On Feb. 6, the conditions of her release were modified so she could reside with her mother in Jackson, Mississippi. Her travel is restricted and she is supervised by a probation officer.

Pierce could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. The charges can also carry a fine of up to $250,000.

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