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Staff member, groups rebut account of fund-raising trip

Westfield State’s president, Evan Dobelle, was already in hot water for running up $200,000 in credit card bills.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Glob/File 2013

Westfield State’s president, Evan Dobelle, was already in hot water for running up $200,000 in credit card bills.

Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle portrayed his fund-raising trip to San Francisco in May as a rousing success, leaving the impression with trustees that he hobnobbed with movers and shakers as he sought $500,000 in grants for the university. For a school fund-raising program nearly broke after years of Dobelle’s costly initiatives, it was welcome news.

But the original draft of Dobelle’s report, written by the staffer who accompanied him, painted a less glamorous picture: The staff member — not Dobelle — went from one charitable foundation to the next, dropping off information packets at the front desk without ever meeting top officials, let alone asking them for money.

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So Dobelle asked her to make changes in the document, according to a former colleague.

Officials at seven foundations that Dobelle said he visited told the Globe they never talked to him and have no record of a grant proposal from Westfield State. Some expressed surprise that Dobelle would even approach them, since they focus on California.

“I want to be as clear as I can be: No one at Irvine met with president Dobelle,” said Daniel Silverman, spokesman for the California-focused Irvine Foundation, where Dobelle told trustees he was seeking a $10,000 donation. “We have no record of a Westfield State proposal in our database.”

Dobelle, through a spokeswoman, conceded he had not personally met with people at the seven foundations, but insisted there was no attempt to mislead trustees, who had clamped down on his business expenses after he ran up more than $200,000 in bills on a single credit card.

Westfield State spokeswoman Molly Watson said Dobelle’s trip to San Francisco — where he has traveled on business at least 15 times since coming to Westfield in 2008 — forged connections for future grant proposals.

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“Fund-raising takes time, and you have to take baby steps to be introduced to your prospective target,” Watson explained.

The questions about the San Francisco trip, which produced no new donations to the school and left the staffer who accompanied Dobelle telling colleagues she felt “mortified,” is part of a growing credibility crisis for the Westfield University president as he fends off charges that he has lavishly spent public funds and private donations for questionable and personal expenses.

The chairman of the university trustees, who has been summoned to appear before the state Board of Higher Education in Boston on Friday to answer questions about Dobelle’s spending, said he is concerned that Dobelle has not been straightforward about the San Francisco trip, for which he billed the university $2,930 in his expenses.

“It was my interpretation that he visited these foundations and applied for these grants and donations,” said Jack Flynn, chairman of the trustees, based on the report Dobelle sent him that listed visits to 11 foundations as well as specific grant amounts associated with each institution.

Flynn said it would be a “grave concern” if Dobelle has misled the board, adding: “At no time have the principles of truthfulness and transparency been more important than now. Without them, our effort to restore the public confidence in the way we do business is nothing but rhetoric.”

Flynn expressed his concerns on the day state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha sent him a letter urging trustees to take immediate action to rein in Dobelle’s spending. The inspector general said he has evidence that Dobelle misused credit cards, spent college funds “indiscriminately,” and made misleading public statements to justify his actions.

Dobelle, who describes himself as a “change agent” who sometimes makes mistakes because he is moving so fast in his zeal to improve Westfield State, has made numerous debatable claims over the past several weeks as he fights to keep his $240,920-a-year job:

 He said scholarships given by the Westfield State College Foundation remained at $250,000 a year, despite his costly initiatives that drained the foundation’s treasury. But internal documents show that the foundation was never so generous, and scholarship totals have dropped significantly since 2008.

 Dobelle insists he flew coach on a 2008 trip to Asia that cost $148,000 for the delegation, but a student who traveled with him told the Globe they both flew in business class to Asia, which typically costs four or more times as much as coach.

 Dobelle said he has made Westfield State “number one across the board” for SAT scores and grade point averages among incoming freshmen. But freshmen at University of Massachusetts branches in Amherst, Boston, and Lowell, among other public schools, have higher SAT scores and grade point averages.

San Francisco has been one of Dobelle’s favorite destinations while he has been at Westfield State. He even set up a short-term study program for students in the city.

Dobelle also has personal connections to San Francisco, where he was president and chancellor of City College of San Francisco from 1990 to 1995. He’s a member of the Bohemian Club, a powerful and exclusive men’s organization near San Francisco and, in the past, Dobelle has combined business travel to the city with attending the club’s annual July retreat at Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio.

This year, Dobelle told officials at the Westfield State College Foundation, the school’s fund-raising arm, that his connections in San Francisco could translate into new money for the school from the city’s many philanthropic foundations. That was good news for the foundation, whose unrestricted budget had dwindled to only $6,000 by March.

With the approval of trustee chairman Flynn, Dobelle flew to San Francisco on May 23, followed by Kandyce Aust, then acting director of the foundation, four days later.

As part of the clampdown on Dobelle’s travel expenses, Flynn required him to file a report on what he had done in San Francisco.

Aust drafted a spreadsheet for Dobelle describing their trip in modest terms. In Aust’s account, obtained by the Globe from a former co-worker, she visited seven San Francisco foundations without an appointment and “delivered an information packet” addressed to top foundation officials. The report said the packets were customized to match the interests of each foundation.

But, after Dobelle reviewed Aust’s report, he asked her to make several significant changes: He wanted specific grant proposals associated with each foundation, such as a $100,000 proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for an “Institute for Civic Engagement and Learning.” He also added four more foundations that he said he had visited on his own.

The version that Dobelle sent to the trustees on May 31, also obtained by the Globe, showed that he and Aust had visited 11 foundations, with grant proposals totalling $500,000 in 2013 and another $100,000 for 2014. The revised version made no reference to the fact that Aust, not Dobelle, had visited at least seven of the foundations.

Flynn said that when he read Dobelle’s report, he assumed that Dobelle had visited all the foundation officials he named and, further, that Dobelle was applying for grants.

“I received the report and took it at face value,” Flynn said. “I didn’t say, ‘We can add it to the checkbook,’ but I did believe we were competing in a realistic way for these dollars.”

However, when the Globe began contacting the foundations, seven said there had been no pitch by Dobelle or anyone else from Westfield State and that they have no funding proposal on file from Westfield State.

Officials at the Levi Strauss Foundation, where Dobelle gave trustees the impression he was seeking a gift of $100,000, said that no one at the foundation had met with Dobelle. Likewise, Genentech Foundation officials said they have no record of the $100,000 grant proposal Dobelle listed in his report.

At the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, officials remembered Aust’s visit on May 28, but no contact with Dobelle.

“I think what happened was someone came in from there and dropped off some reading materials and that was it,” said Magee Johnson of the Haas Fund staff.

None of the nine foundations that the Globe successfully reached could confirm direct contact with Dobelle, and one of them, the Louis R. Lurie Foundation, said it would have made little sense for Dobelle to approach them for money.

“We don’t talk to anybody outside of San Francisco. We only deal with the city of San Francisco. It says that right on our website,” said the Lurie Foundation’s administrator, Nancy Terry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the fund-raising trip produced little revenue for Westfield State.

In a statement, Dobelle claimed that he collected $10,000 as a result of his meeting with Arthur Gensler of the Gensler Family Foundation, but a person familiar with the foundation’s fund-raising said the check arrived several weeks before Dobelle went to San Francisco.

Records show that Gensler has given Westfield State an annual gift each year since 2009.

Aust declined to discuss the trip with the Globe, but a former colleague said Aust told her that she was embarrassed to visit high-powered foundations unannounced. She said that while Dobelle waited in the car, she would go to the front desk and drop off material about the school.

Aust also told the colleague, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, that Dobelle seemed busy with other activities, going out socially in the evenings and leaving Aust, who was new to San Francisco, on her own, according to this colleague.

At the end, this colleague said, Aust wrote a truthful account of the trip, but then, at Dobelle’s request, rewrote it to include the grant proposals.

Dobelle’s spokeswoman, Watson, said Dobelle’s memo represented his future hopes rather than an accounting of money he had already lined up. She said the fact that there are no grant proposals more than three months later is not meaningful, noting that Dobelle needed to wait for the faculty to return from summer vacation to come up with detailed grant proposals.

Two weeks after the San Francisco trip, Dobelle attended a meeting of the fund-raising foundation where board members lamented that the group’s finances were getting worse. According to the meeting minutes, Dobelle reassured members that “he has $2 million worth of asks on the table,” using the fund-raising slang for a grant proposal. He said he hoped to collect on up to three of them soon.

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com. Scott Allen can be reached at scott.allen@globe.com.

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