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Donor cancels planned $100,000 gift to Westfield State

A donor said he was “appalled at the lavish spending” by Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

A donor said he was “appalled at the lavish spending” by Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle.

A major donor has withdrawn a planned $100,000 gift to Westfield State University, saying he was “appalled at the lavish spending” by president Evan Dobelle, joining a growing backlash against the school after reports that Dobelle used the school’s private fund-raising arm to foot the bill for luxury hotels, limousine rides, and other high-end purchases, including a trip to Asia.

A long-awaited review, part of which was obtained by the Globe this week, of Dobelle’s spending habits, shows that Dobelle freely mixed personal spending with official business in credit card charges of more than $180,209 billed to the Westfield State College Foundation over a 30-month period. Even after months of analysis, however, the accountant who conducted the review said it was impossible to tell whether many of the expenses were legitimate.

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Though Dobelle repaid $34,854, the review found, some reimbursements arrived up to three years after the fact — at a time when the accountant had already begun reviewing Dobelle’s expenditures. And some personal charges such as clothing purchases and travel for Dobelle’s family, the review found, should not have been charged to the foundation in the first place.

“I am hopeful that Mr. Dobelle will either reimburse the college or step down,” John P. Walsh, president of Elizabeth Grady skin care salons, wrote to the Globe in an e-mail explaining his decision to withdraw a $100,000 pledge to the foundation, which raises money for scholarships and educational programs at Westfield State.

While Dobelle has accomplished much as president, Walsh said a recent Globe report detailing Dobelle’s expenditures — including more than $500,000 for a celebrity speaker series and $118,000 to travel with a Westfield delegation to Asia — show money being wasted at a school where most students rely on financial aid.

“Authority should be seen as an example of leadership and responsibility, not a way around it,” wrote Walsh, a Westfield State alum whom Dobelle had courted for a donation for years.

The withdrawal of Walsh’s pledge is the most dramatic reaction to Dobelle’s spending, which has roiled the public university near Springfield just days before students return for the fall semester. Governor Deval Patrick last week called for Dobelle to release full documentation of his spending, while a local radio station mockingly played the song “One Night in Bangkok” in reference to a city where Dobelle spent more than $8,000 for a four-night hotel stay.

“Are you kidding me?????” wrote Westfield State parent Kim Dacey in a letter to Dobelle on Aug. 18. “In case you need to be refreshed, Mr. Dobelle, some of us struggle to eat so our children can get an education.”

Dobelle has strongly defended his expenditures as part of a plan to boost the school’s “brand,” which he described as “private value at a public price.” Dobelle has admitted he sometimes charged personal expenses to the foundation in his early years as president, but insists he is more careful now.

“I am meticulous about” expenses, Dobelle said in an interview earlier this month, while adding that his work transforming the former teachers’ college into a major university sometimes made him neglectful of details. “When you move about as fast as I do and you’re all about being a change agent, these things can happen.”

Privately, Dobelle has told aides that he has no intention of resigning the $240,920 job he has held since 2008, and that he will present his side at Thursday’s board of trustees meeting where the outside review of Dobelle’s expenditures is expected to be released.

Dobelle issued a statement Wednesday night stressing that Walsh never formally pledged the $100,000 gift he’s now withdrawing, but said he should be pleased with the accountant’s review, claiming it found “no personal expenses at issue.”

“I invite Mr. Walsh or anyone else to contact me with any questions they have about” Westfield State, Dobelle said.

The controversy over Dobelle’s spending has been brewing for more than two years after someone anonymously provided a stack of Dobelle’s expenses to a university official who forwarded them to trustee chairman Jack Flynn. Eventually, board members asked the Braintree accounting firm O’Connor and Drew to look broadly at spending by Dobelle and his top administrators.

Foundation records show that Dobelle’s free spending from 2008 to 2010 helped precipitate a financial crisis at the foundation, requiring a $400,000 bailout from the university so it could pay its bills.

The foundation board terminated the credit cards given to Dobelle and other administrators in late 2010, but the impact of the crisis is still being felt: Total scholarships handed out by the foundation have fallen from $145,595 in 2008-2009 to $88,396 this year.

The accounting firm finished a draft of the financial review by March 2013, but haggling with Dobelle and others over how and when to present it has delayed its release until now. In fact, when the Globe first inquired about the O’Connor and Drew audit in June, Dobelle’s spokeswoman, Molly Watson, denied it was ongoing.

“There’s no record of an audit being initiated,” Watson told the Globe on June 14. “That’s all the information I have available at this time.” Weeks later, Watson clarified that the accountants were conducting a review, not an audit.

The review, which cost $58,000, contains two separate sections: one detailing the spending of foundation funds by Dobelle and three other officials, and the other detailing their spending of university dollars.

The Globe obtained the portion addressing foundation spending, which paints a picture of an organization with no clear mission that allowed top Westfield State University administrators to run up large tabs on foundation credit cards with little explanation of the business purpose.

The accountant concluded the foundation put few limits on Dobelle’s expenditures until late 2010, allowing needlessly expensive charges.

“Dinner meetings took place at high-end restaurants which might not be considered reasonably priced,” the review stated. Dobelle routinely spent more than $500 for dinner at Rouge Restaurant in West Stockbridge, including a $621 tab for a group that included former governor Jane Swift.

In all, the accountant cited dozens of questionable expenses that Dobelle charged to the foundation from 2008 to 2013, including:

  More than $3,000 in tickets to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

$975 for tickets to see folk singer Arlo Guthrie.

An unexplained $8,000 wire transfer to Vietnam, one of several large undocumented expenses from the Asia trip.

A $35 movie in his Connecticut hotel room.

Dobelle eventually repaid nearly 20 percent of the credit card charges O’Connor and Drew analyzed, but often did so months or years after the spending took place. Dobelle repaid a $220 personal expense for an Aug. 26, 2009, visit to the Brix Wine Bar in Pittsfield more than three years later, on Oct. 1, 2012, when trustees had already asked for a review of Dobelle’s spending. The same day, he repaid $337 for limo rides he and his wife had taken in September 2009.

But O’Connor and Drew officials said Dobelle’s repayments were too little, too late: he should not have charged them in the first place.

“Even given the fact that the foundation was reimbursed, the personal use of the credit card should not have been permitted,” according to the review.

The accountants also have reviewed Dobelle’s spending of university money directly, including his university credit card and his use of a subordinate’s credit card to make personal charges.

In an earlier interview with the Globe, Dobelle expressed remorse that his spending threatened to overshadow the good he has done for Westfield State, which has risen in US News and World Reports college rankings in recent years.

“In the scheme of things, I’m proud of everything,” Dobelle said. “It’s all about kids. It’s not about drinking white wine. That’s just not me.”

But Walsh, a major benefactor, said at this point the main concern should be the financial integrity of the university, which Dobelle’s big spending has undermined.

“The University Board has done an internal audit. They have the responsibility to determine the legitimacy of all funds,” Walsh wrote. “Any expenditures that have been found to be excessive or are out of the normal course of business, including but not limited to travel, must be reimbursed.”

Edward Marth, chairman of the foundation board, said he hoped Walsh will change his mind, but said he understood Walsh’s frustration.

“I personally don’t have the confidence myself” in how foundation money has been spent, he said. “If there has been any betrayal of trust in the way some funds have been spent — whether well intentioned or not — it’s understandably hard to pick up the pieces again. But we’re trying.

“We’re committed to making sure that every dollar that is donated is going to be well and carefully spent.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.
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