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Westfield State urged to rein in president’s spending

Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha has found that Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle violated school policy by using credit cards for personal expenses, and spent money earmarked for programs and scholarships “indiscriminately with little or no consideration” for its intended purpose.

In a two-page letter sent Thursday, the day before Dobelle and the trustees are scheduled to meet with state education officials, Cunha also urged the school’s trustees to “move quickly” to scrutinize Dobelle’s spending and his claims that his expenditures have brought the school a “return on investment” worth millions of dollars.

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The inspector general warned that he “has concerns about broader allegations of misconduct in connection with spending at both” Westfield State University and the foundation that does the university’s fund-raising.

Cunha urged the trustees to act soon on such concerns, and not wait to receive his full report, which is expected in time for their October meeting.

Cunha’s letter comes less than two months after Westfield State’s accountant also found widespread violations by Dobelle and others of the university policy against using institutional credit cards for personal expenses. The accountant also said that many of Dobelle’s charges, such as $8,000 he had wired to Vietnam, were poorly documented.

Dobelle rejected the review by accountant David A. DiIulis, of the O’Connor and Drew accounting firm, as sloppy and defaming, and stressed that all his spending was aimed at improving Westfield State.

But Cunha said his preliminary review supports DiIulis’s findings, calling them “accurate and well-supported.” Not only has Dobelle charged personal expenses on school credit cards, said Cunha, but he also racked up expenses that were excessive and not reasonable, in violation of the school’s spending policy.

In an e-mailed statement, Westfield State spokeswoman Molly Watson defended Dobelle, saying: “Westfield State stands by the accuracy of its determination there is substantial (return on investment) on the expenditures at issue. We look forward to working with the IG to resolve this.” Dobelle has also continued to defend his spending.

The inspector general said his concerns go beyond those raised by the accountant, to the financial stability of the Westfield State College Foundation, the school’s private fund-raising arm. In 2010, for example, he said the university had to transfer $400,000 to the foundation, which was running a deficit, in part because of Dobelle’s expenses and costly programs pushed by Dobelle.

Cunha also challenged Dobelle’s justification for some of the expenses such as a trip to Asia in 2008. In a statement Dobelle gave the trustees when the accountant’s review was released Aug. 29, he said his trips abroad had generated “over $3 million and recurring revenue of approximately $1,200,000 per year.” He also stated that the school welcomed “123 international students from over 50 countries” this fall.

Cunha’s initial review of documentation has concluded these claims are “based on generalizations, assumptions, and misleading definitions, rather than hard numbers.” Of the 123 international students, for example, the “vast majority consists of Massachusetts residents who pay in-state tuition.” Students who apply to the school from foreign countries pay much higher tuition.

The inspector general “encourages the board to provide strict oversight of president Dobelle’s ongoing expenses,” the letter says. “The trustees should ensure that all expenses [Westfield State] is making for presidential travel, events, and fundraising fall within its budgetary constraints and the best interest of the students.”

Dobelle, in a defense delivered at the August trustees’ meeting, called the accountant’s report “illegal” because the entire board of trustees had not approved the hiring of O’Connor and Drew.

He would not address the questionable expenditures cited in the report, and said he felt duty-bound not to provide written responses to the review because it was invalid. “I felt a responsibility to adhere to . . . the laws of the Commonwealth,” he said. “I’m not going to participate in something that shuts out the majority of the board members and is illegal.”

Questions about Dobelle’s expenses have prompted one large potential donor to cancel plans to give $100,000 and brought calls from Governor Deval Patrick, state education officials, and others for a full accounting of his spending.

But Dobelle has told people around him that the controversy will soon pass and he will continue to lead Westfield State for years to come.

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.
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