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AG asks federal court to toss Evan Dobelle’s lawsuit

Evan S. Dobelle resigned earlier this month.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Evan S. Dobelle resigned earlier this month.

Attorney General Martha Coakley has asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the former president of Westfield State University, arguing that it lacks sufficient facts and is riddled with legal errors.

Evan S. Dobelle filed his lawsuit in US District Court in Springfield on Oct. 24, alleging that university trustees and a top state official conspired to ruin his reputation by accusing him of lavish spending and misuse of university credit cards.

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Dobelle contends that the college’s board chairman Jack Flynn, a State Police official, wanted to take control of the university to turn it into a “diploma mill” for state troopers. He also alleged that state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland wanted Dobelle’s job as university president. To accomplish their goals, Dobelle contended, they had to smear his image by accusing him of spending university resources on international travel, luxury hotels, and high-end restaurants.

Dobelle filed the suit eight days after the trustees voted unanimously to place him on paid administrative leave. He resigned on Nov. 8.

On Wednesday, Coakley, who represents Freeland and the trustees because they are state employees, filed a 13-page memo in federal court arguing that Dobelle’s lawsuit should be discarded on technical and legal grounds.

She argues that Dobelle erred by suing Freeland and the trustees as individuals even though, as state officials, they cannot be sued in federal court. She also contends that Dobelle’s lawsuit makes only a cursory attempt to support his argument that his free speech and due process rights were violated.

On Friday, Dobelle’s lawyer, Ross H. Garber, said he had not had a chance to review Coakley’s request to have the lawsuit dismissed but was not surprised by it. “Motions to dismiss under these circumstances are routine, and it’s something we expected the state to file,” he said. “We’ll respond in due course and are very confident in our legal theories.”

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Dobelle has 14 days to respond. He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the harm done to his reputation and interference with his contract, under which he was paid more than $240,000 a year.

Dobelle was hired as Westfield State president in 2008, even though, as president of the University of Hawaii, he had acquired a reputation for questionable spending.

The controversy surrounding Dobelle’s spending at Westfield State became public in August, when the Globe reported that he had spent $150,000 to take a university delegation to Asia and $10,000 for tickets to Tanglewood, where he liked to entertain potential donors.

Dobelle argued that his spending was intended to raise the university’s profile and assist with fund-raising.

But later that month, trustees released an accountant’s report showing that Dobelle had charged tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses to university-related credit cards and that many of his large business expenses lacked documentation.

Some of his travel expenses were also questioned.

For example, Dobelle said he had flown to San Francisco in May to raise money for the university. But a staff member later told the Globe that she — 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.

Freeland froze grants and construction funding for Westfield State after Dobelle missed a state-imposed deadline to justify his spending. Two weeks later, a majority of the faculty and library staff at the university took a vote declaring that they had no longer had confidence in Dobelle’s ability to serve effectively as president.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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