The Patrick administration has summoned Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle and his board of trustees to Boston next week to answer questions about Dobelle’s use of school credit cards for personal expenses and costly business travel such as nearly $150,000 to lead a group on a tour of Asia.
Charles F. Desmond, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, sent a letter to Dobelle Thursday expressing concerns after a recent review of Dobelle’s spending by an outside accountant found numerous violations of university credit card policy and a lack of documentation for Dobelle’s expenses on several cards, including one issued to his executive assistant.
Desmond said he was not reassured by Dobelle’s written response, in which he claimed that all of the problems were in the past and that the report by the accountant at O’Connor and Drew was shoddy. Dobelle described much of the spending as an investment in the school’s future.
“This report — and your letter — raise serious concerns about the appropriateness of certain expenditures,” wrote Desmond, asking Dobelle to appear before the Board of Higher Education on the morning of Sept. 20.
Dobelle immediately agreed to accept Desmond’s invitation, reminding Desmond that he had already requested such “an opportunity to meet and would be pleased to discuss the appropriateness of the investments identified in the accountant’s report.”
Desmond sent a separate letter to trustee chairman John Flynn, expressing concern about the trustees’ low-key reaction to the spending controversy. The board has not disciplined Dobelle and has delayed action until at least October while awaiting results from an investigation by the state inspector general. Several trustees have questioned the legitimacy of the accountant’s review since he was hired by Flynn rather than the entire board.
“We are interested in discussing the Westfield board’s analysis of this matter and what actions, including corrective and disciplinary action, the board has taken or intends to take,” wrote Desmond, asking the trustees to appear before the Board of Higher Education and other top education officials following Dobelle.
Flynn said he was willing to meet with state officials, but could not speak for the board. However, Flynn defended the trustees’ reluctance to act now on the spending controversy.
The inspector general “has been spending significant time and resources on reviewing university transactions and we have not yet had the benefit of their findings,” he said. “Those findings are critical to what actions should or should not be taken.”
In fact, Inspector General Glenn Cunha recently sent detailed information requests to the foundation and the university looking for, among other things, attendance records for all employees in Dobelle’s office, including some that were reported missing last month.
Cunha has also asked for documentation supporting Dobelle’s claims that Westfield State has drawn 123 students from around the world, which he claims is part of the payoff from his international travel.
Dobelle has admitted that he sometimes charged personal expenditures on his university credit card and an employee’s university card, plus a third credit card given to him by the foundation that raises private donations for the school. The foundation canceled Dobelle’s card in 2010 after it said he ran up more than $200,000 in charges and helped precipitate a financial crisis at the foundation.
Dobelle, and his trustees, say that changes in procedures have eliminated the problem of mingling personal and business expenses. Dobelle also notes that he paid back personal expenses on the cards when they were brought to his attention, including $34,854 on the foundation card.
Westfield State trustees initially asked for the review of spending by Dobelle and other administrators last year after documents were left anonymously with a university official showing tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses on the credit card issued to him by the school’s foundation.
When the report was made public on Aug. 29, it showed that Dobelle charged more than $100,000 in personal expenses on three credit cards.
The accounting firm said the money appeared to have been repaid — sometimes a year or more after the fact — but accountant David DiIulis said he couldn’t be sure because the record keeping was so poor. “It’s difficult with some of these expenses,” he said. “You can’t really tell. I can only trust it’s a business expense.”
The review cited numerous examples when Dobelle incurred questionable charges or charges that violated university policy either because they seemed excessive or personal:
■ Dobelle charged his wife and son’s airfare on university and foundation credit cards, sometimes using a card issued to his assistant, Nanci Salvidio.
■ Several times, Dobelle used official credit cards to pay for personal travel and did not put in for vacation time on those days. Instead, he put in for per diem expenses as though he were working.
■ Dobelle traveled to London in June 2011 and billed the trip to the university. After O’Connor and Drew began their review in late 2012, Dobelle reimbursed the university for the personal trip.
■ In January 2011, Dobelle charged the university $1,100 for two nights at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco.
Although Dobelle has not responded to many specifics in the report, he has dismissed the entire document as illegal and unprofessional, because it was never approved by the full board of trustees and because it didn’t take into consideration the “return on investment” for Westfield State by spending the money.Scott Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org