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Audit faults spending by Westfield State chief

Evan Dobelle, president of Westfield State University.

Evan Dobelle, president of Westfield State University. Purchase photo reprints »

Dobelle and the university defended his record in written statements Thursday, blaming the media and stressing all funds are accounted for.

“At the outset, and particularly in light of the sensationalist coverage afforded this review by the media, it is important to emphasize the ultimate finding that no University funds were expended for any University employee’s personal use,” Dobelle said in a statement released before Thursday’s meeting.

He acknowledged there were instances in which university credit cards were used for personal expenses and there were bookkeeping errors, but all expenses were paid back in full and all expenditures were for the benefit of the university.

In a similar statement, Westfield State said that there was “not a penny missing,” and that the public should know that dollars are spent “appropriately in order to further the mission of the University.”

The auditing firm O’Connor and Drew spend five months reviewing expenses incurred by Dobelle and other top administrators and completed its report in March. The Boston Globe reported results of the review earlier this month, and it was formally presented to trustees Thursday amid pressure from Gov. Deval Patrick and state Secretary of Education Matthew H. Malone to release the review.

Meantime, both the state Inspector General and Attorney General are reviewing Dobelle’s travel expenses.

In his first two years at the university, Dobelle used a Westfield State Foundation Inc. credit card to charge $200,000 for travel, including a trip for 10 staff members to Asia, and other items including a $935 dinner and a $900 round-trip limousine ride to New York City, according to the Globe. When the foundation took away the credit card, he allegedly used his assistant’s university credit card for personal trips and other expenses.

O’Connor and Drew cautioned that it was not hired to issue an opinion on compliance. “Accordingly, we do not express such an opinion,” the audit states. “Had we performed additional procedures, other matters might have come to our attention that would have been reported to you.”

The report does, however, highlight violations of university policy. The review found that though it appears Dobelle’s credit card charges for three months ending in February significantly after the foundation took away the credit card, previous disbursements could be construed as being beyond what is reasonable. The majority of these disbursements related to travel, particularly the quantity of trips and the costs associated with air fare and hotel stays.

The audit found flights and hotel stays often did not abide by university policies that call for travelers to stay a low- or moderate-cost “non-luxury” hotels and take advantage of reduced rates and avoid cancellations of airline travel. Many times, this did not happen, with flights being booked with little lead time and often changed. “There needs to be more regard for costs incurred on travel and the concept of ‘prudency’ should be enforced,” the audit states.

Dobelle said accountants did not compare Westfield State’s travel and lodging practices with other comparable universities, nor did they consider the purpose and mission of such trips and the “substantial financial gains” and “increased opportunities” that such trips brought to the university.

Some school staff have defended Dobelle’s spending, echoing his statements that the money was used to expand the school’s international programs, improve town-gown relations, increase donor contributions and raise the university’s profile.

Since Dobelle became president in 2007, the university has seen a 60-percent increase in alumni giving, an 83-percent increase in donor dollars for capital projects and an 89-percent increase in federal grants, according to Dobelle’s website. Its international exchange program generates approximately $3 million in annual revenue, according to the university.

The audit also calls for stronger controls and more clearly defined policies regarding travel expenses, and it urges the board to play a stronger role in overseeing such expenses. This would include pre-approval by the board after hearing the purpose and cost of a planned trip and how such a trip will benefit the university.

“There needs to be more oversight at the board level over presidential travel to ensure the guidelines are followed,” the audit states.

The audit also calls on Westfield State’s management to consider reducing the number of credit cards and use one corporate credit card that incorporates all university transactions. As of May 15, 2012, there were about 40 credit cards with a total credit limit of $85,000. Additionally, the university “needs to adhere to its policies in regards to the personal use of credit cards and not permit use for other than University purposes,” the audit states.

The review found that in “all cases” the university was reimbursed for personal credit charges, but cautioned that the potential exists that expenses could have gone through the system since they had not been identified as personal.

Auditors also credited the university for revising its policies and procedures in several areas started last October, including travel and corporate credit card use, among others.

Related

Editorial: Westfield State University’s loose money problem

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Evan S. Dobelle says that the audit by an outside accounting firm of his expenditures as president of Westfield State University shows no public funds went for his personal use. However, a reading of the audit report makes it clear that over four years, university travel and credit card policies were violated, record-keeping was careless and incomplete, travel expenses were … 1

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