Former Westfield State University president Evan S. Dobelle improperly used hundreds of thousands of dollars from school accounts to pay for such things as frequent personal trips, electronic equipment for personal use, and a portrait of himself, then covered his tracks by filing false reports, according to a scathing new report by the state inspector general.
The report cited more than 20 examples of Dobelle’s misconduct during his stormy six-year tenure, many of them deliberate and repeated and some potentially illegal. In 2013, Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha writes, Dobelle brought friends and family on a university trip to Cuba, urging them to falsely claim to be Westfield State officials.
Cunha’s report raises the prospect that Dobelle could face criminal investigation. Though Cunha is barred from disclosing whether he referred the case to federal and state prosecutors for further review, he stressed how seriously he views the allegations against Dobelle.
“It’s outrageous for the president of a university to engage in the kind of behavior the investigation uncovered,” Cunha said in an interview. “The main takeaway is just how astounding this behavior is.”
Dobelle, who resigned in November 2013 after Globe reports on his extravagant spending, nearly bankrupted the school’s private fund-raising organization through wasteful spending such as a 10-person trip to Asia in 2008, the report found. Not only did Dobelle’s free spending of donations bring little public benefit, Cunha wrote, the university had to spend $400,000 to bail out the Westfield State Foundation.
“Dobelle knowingly disregarded University policies, misled the WSU Board of Trustees, abused his authority and exploited public resources for his personal benefit,” Cunha wrote. “Dobelle’s self-characterization as a ‘visionary’ does not absolve him from the obligation to follow the rules. . . . Dobelle violated the public trust.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley said her office has already been briefed on Cunha’s findings and she is investigating whether the state can sue to recover money from Dobelle.
“This report raises serious concerns and allegations about the use of Westfield State resources by its former president,” Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer said. “We have been conducting our own investigation into this matter and anticipate additional action soon.”
Dobelle, who came to Westfield State vowing to turn it into a world-class institution, has insisted that he did nothing wrong and that all of his spending was aimed at building Westfield’s reputation. He has filed a federal lawsuit against Westfield and state officials alleging they conspired against him to push him out because he wanted to change the school from being a “diploma mill” for police officers.
On Thursday, Dobelle’s attorney, Ross H. Garber, said Dobelle had not read the report yet, but he called for an end to efforts to “tarnish Dr. Dobelle’s reputation.”
“Millions of dollars have been spent to oust Dr. Dobelle and to justify that decision,” Garber said in a statement. “Yet a federal judge has refused to dismiss allegations against the commissioner of higher education and the former [Westfield State] board chair that they violated Dr. Dobelle’s constitutional rights.”
But Westfield State officials said Cunha had identified “flagrant misuse and waste of university funds” by Dobelle, justifying the board’s decision to suspend him and launch their own investigation of his spending practices last year. And they stressed that the school has overhauled its financial practices under interim president Elizabeth Hall Preston.
“While this has been a difficult period for all of us, the faculty and staff of the university have persevered and focused on the work of providing our students with an outstanding education,” Preston said in a statement. “We approach the start of our new academic year with a sense of excitement and new momentum.”
Cunha found that Dobelle had gotten into similar trouble for his lavish spending at previous jobs, including at the University of Hawaii and the New England Board of Higher Education. In Hawaii, the board of regents unanimously voted to terminate his seven-year contract in 2004 after just three years because of his wasteful spending and ever-shifting explanations, Cunha’s report said.
“There has been a lack of accountability, lack of fund-raising progress, lack of a sense of stewardship, ignoring the most basic policies,” then-regents chairwoman Patricia Lee said, according to the minutes of the Hawaii board’s June 15, 2004, meeting. “But, most importantly, his dishonesty and lying are most troubling.”
Cunha’s long-awaited 71-page report cites example after example in which Dobelle allegedly misled Westfield trustees, including a 2010 trip to San Francisco in which Dobelle charged $2,841.27 to the Westfield State Foundation, even though he did no school business and spent the time at a private, all-male social club called Bohemian Grove.
“In short,” Cunha wrote, “Dobelle fraudulently arranged to have the Foundation provide a $2,841.27 subsidy for a vacation, and the Foundation received nothing in return.”
Dobelle routinely ran up personal charges on college and Westfield State Foundation credit cards, claiming they were legitimate business expenses, Cunha found. Dobelle himself, often under pressure from Westfield officials, repaid more than $85,000 in personal expenditures on university-related credit cards, the inspector general found, citing numerous cases where personal expenses were not repaid.
Dobelle charged more than $63,000 for 17 trips to San Francisco where, he told school officials, he was meeting potential donors and high-tech business executives. But the inspector general found that he was mostly attending social events such as the long-planned wedding of a friend’s son, the Bohemian Grove’s annual “Spring Jinks” in late May, or its “Encampment” in Monte Rio, Calif., for two weeks every July.
Investigators contacted the people Dobelle stated he had been visiting on behalf of Westfield State, who said they either hadn’t met with Dobelle or their meeting was purely social. The Globe reported previously that Dobelle had rewritten a staff member’s report from one such trip to San Francisco so that it would appear he was actively fund-raising when, in reality, the staff member was dropping off literature at front desks of charities and Dobelle was meeting with no one.
Dobelle, who earned more than $240,000 a year, apparently tapped the school’s resources when he began running into his own credit card problems, Cunha found. By the end of his first year at the school in 2008, he had five personal credit cards that were almost all maxed out, with an outstanding balance of more than $47,000, Cunha found.
Shortly thereafter, Dobelle began relying on credit cards from the university and the alumni fund, making nearly $7,600 in personal purchases in January 2009 alone. In 2009 and 2010 combined, he put nearly $59,000 in personal items on school credit cards, Cunha found.
Among the items he purchased were two Kindles for $848, a $967.35 Nikon digital camera, and a $2,214.59 Apple laptop, equipment he never turned over to the school, the inspector general found.
He also commissioned a portrait of himself, contacting a local artist in 2013, and sent the $777.75 bill to the school’s foundation after the fact. The portrait remained in a closet to be unveiled at an event for the 175th anniversary of the university in 2013. After Dobelle resigned, school staffers didn’t want the painting and shipped it to Dobelle.
Besides flouting school policies, Cunha wrote, Dobelle violated the state’s conflict of interest law, which bars public officials from using their position to receive a benefit unavailable to others.
Dobelle violated the conflict law by keeping thousands of reward points and frequent-flier miles he racked up on school credit cards while traveling, Cunha wrote. Those points should have been turned over to Westfield State to offset the school’s future travel costs, Cunha wrote.
He faces potential state fines of up to $10,000 per violation and could be forced to repay the school for the benefits fraudulently received.
Dobelle also violated federal travel restrictions when he brought ineligible people, including his wife and son, to an exhibition baseball game in Cuba in 2013. Half of the 24 people he planned to bring with him had no affiliation with the school and therefore were not allowed to travel to Cuba under the US Treasury Department’s academic exemption.
Dobelle and his executive assistant, Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, advised the travelers to submit false affidavits claiming they were “adjunct faculty” or “assistant coaches,” Cunha wrote, calling Dobelle’s behavior “improper and irresponsible.”
Lugo-DeJesus, along with several other employees in Dobelle’s inner circle, no longer work at Westfield State, school officials said.
Edward C. Marth, chairman of the Westfield State Foundation, called Cunha’s report “a sad compilation of serial abuse of authority,” but he said potential donors to the school can be assured that the era of abuses is over.
“There should be no misunderstanding about the funds for scholarships; they were and are properly invested and untouched by this sad saga,” Marth said.
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