REPORT Ex-president Dobelle charged Westfield State $180K for weeks at private club, vacations, electronics, self portrait, more

Last modified: Friday, August 01, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Nearly nine months after Evan S. Dobelle resigned as president of Westfield State University, the state inspector general on Thursday released a stinging review of his spending, suggesting a leader who repeatedly abused his authority, exploited more than $180,000 of public money for personal use and violated the public trust.

The 60-page report found that Dobelle made “frequent and extensive” use of university credit cards for personal expenses and travel costs, despite the university’s specific prohibition of the practice, then misrepresented much of the spending as university business, Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha concluded. The report goes well beyond the scope of earlier reviews of Dobelle’s spending practices by a law and accounting firm hired by the university.

“As documented in this report’s findings, Dobelle knowingly disregarded University and Foundation policies, misled the WSU Board of Trustees, abused his authority and exploited public resources for personal benefit,” the report said. “Dobelle’s self-characterization as a ‘visionary’ does not absolve him from the obligation to follow the rules applicable to his position.”

Review of Spending Practices by Former Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle

Cunha’s report details a bevy of examples of excessive or wasteful spending by Dobelle, diving into more than $450,000 in expenses the former president racked up on university-related credit cards during his six years in charge. Of that total, Dobelle acknowledged $85,000 in personal charges, but investigators identified “tens of thousands of dollars in additional charges that Dobelle spent for primarily or exclusively personal purposes,” the report states.

Additionally, Cunha accused Dobelle of repeatedly submitting documents falsely portraying personal spending as having a WSU-related purpose, particularly when it came to his travel expenses. He said Dobelle diverted the costs of multiple personal vacations and meals to the school and its foundation. The report states that he took at least 110 out-of-state business trips, including 17 such trips to San Francisco in which he charged the school more than $63,000 for mostly personal expenses.

During one trip to San Francisco in 2010 that Dobelle characterized as a fundraising trip, he spent more than two weeks at the Bohemian Grove camp, a private, all-male social club to which he belonged. Investigators found no evidence that Dobelle met with potential donors, attended an annual meeting of a coalition of urban and metropolitan universities or conducted other fundraising business, yet he billed the Westfield State Foundation $2,841 for airfare, hotels, meals and limousine service for the trip.

The investigation found that 10 of Dobelle’s San Francisco trips coincided with the Bohemian’s annual festivities.

“Consistently, Dobelle’s trips to San Francisco during May and July included vacation time bracketed purportedly by University-related meetings, with these meetings providing a pretext for the University to pay for his airfare, hotel costs and other travel expenses,” the report states.

The inspector general’s office is charged with preventing and detecting fraud, waste and abuse in government.

Dobelle declined to be interviewed under oath by the inspector general as part of its investigation. His lawyer, Ross Garber, on Thursday said his client has not had an opportunity to review the report. But Garber said in an email it is “time to stop the effort to tarnish” Dobelle’s reputation and achievements.

“Millions of dollars have been spent to oust Dr. Dobelle and to justify that decision,” he wrote.

Dobelle, a former mayor of Pittsfield who previously served as president of the University of Hawaii and president of the New England Board of Higher Education, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging state and university officials violated his constitutional rights. He is seeking unspecified damages.

Other findings detailed in Cunha’s report include Dobelle’s instructions to family and friends to falsely claim they were adjunct faculty or assistant coaches in order to gain travel authority for a 2013 trip to Cuba.

The report also documents Dobelle’s repeated false or misleading statements to school trustees to justify his improper actions and wasteful spending, including claims that his foreign travel had attracted 123 international students to WSU in the fall of 2013, bringing in $1.3 million per year. The report, however, said that most of those students are non-U.S. citizens who are permanent residents of Massachusetts and pay in-state tuition.

In another example, Dobelle frequently billed personal trips to the university claiming they were for meetings with prospective donors. During a May 2013 trip to San Francisco, for example, he claimed to have appointments with four university alumni who were now “high-tech” executives. But Cunha’s office said Dobelle did not have any such appointments and that the primary motive for the trip was to attend a wedding.

Other findings of inappropriate spending detailed in the report include Dobelle’s purchase of two Kindle e-book readers, a digital camera and a laptop computer using the credit card issued to him by the public university, which has more than 5,000 undergraduate students.

He also commissioned a portrait of himself in 2013 to be unveiled for the university’s 175th anniversary, and billed the $777 cost to the university’s nonprofit fundraising arm, the Westfield State Foundation, even though the expense was never authorized beforehand, the report says.

Interim Westfield State University President Elizabeth Hall Preston said in a statement Thursday that the university has taken a number of steps to improve its financial and budgetary controls in the wake of the Dobelle controversy and will take any further steps recommended by state officials.

Preston said the university has already eliminated university and foundation-issued credit cards in favor of “procurement cards” that resemble credit cards but with “enhanced” controls. The university is also in the process of centralizing travel through an outside vendor, she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.