Lawyers for former Westfield State University president Evan S. Dobelle, embroiled in federal and state lawsuits, are looking to drop him as a client over “fundamental disagreements” and his failure to pay their bills.
The Hartford firm, Shipman & Goodwin, has been representing Dobelle since his lawsuit against state education officials was filed in October 2013, shortly before Dobelle resigned amid allegations of extravagant spending. But “despite numerous notices of his substantial arrears . . . most of the fees and expenses remain unpaid,” Ross Garber wrote in a motion asking federal magistrate judge Katherine Robertson to let him and two other lawyers from his firm withdraw from the case.
“Although counsel and plaintiff have made numerous efforts to resolve these fundamental disagreements, all attempts at resolution have proven fruitless and effective communication has irretrievably broken down,” Garber wrote.
Dobelle “does not consent” to Garber’s motion, the lawyer informed the judge. Also seeking to drop Dobelle is Darrell Mook, a Boston lawyer who has served as his local counsel, advising his out-of-state lawyers on Massachusetts law.
Dobelle filed suit against Westfield State’s trustees, accountants, and lawyers, as well as state higher education commissioner Richard Freeland, after a series of Globe articles detailed his lavish spending. He claimed they violated his civil and contractual rights by forcing him to retire.
In the suit, Dobelle said he was a casualty of Freeland and the trustees’ “guerilla war” for control of the school, he said.
A self-described visionary, Dobelle, 69, argued that his “long-celebrated career” was “swiftly, unjustly and perhaps irreparably damaged.”
But for months, Dobelle has refused to be deposed by lawyers for the defendants. Each time a meeting has been scheduled, Dobelle has canceled, saying he was out of state and unavailable, lawyers for the attorney general wrote in court papers filed last week.
Robertson ordered Dobelle to be deposed either this week or next. If the judge grants Garber’s request to withdraw from the case, Dobelle will have to hire new lawyers, or represent himself.
In an e-mailed statement, Dobelle didn’t comment on his lawyers’ move to drop him as a client, but said the school is obligated to pay his legal fees. “This has been shockingly blocked by the trustees, and continues as a subject of legal action in state court,” he wrote.
He downplayed the suggestion that he has delayed the litigation, saying a deposition date has been scheduled and that since his retirement he has been busy consulting and traveling.
Dobelle, who served as Westfield’s president for six years, is the defendant in a separate lawsuit filed last August by then-attorney general Martha Coakley. Mook alone has represented Dobelle in this case, and has not yet filed a motion to withdraw, the attorney general’s office said.
In the suit, Coakley alleged that Dobelle misspent nearly $100,000 in university resources on personal expenses, including family trips to Cuba, expensive meals, and frequent visits to an exclusive men’s retreat near San Francisco. He then filed false reports, she said, to cover up the spending.
If the attorney general’s office wins the case, Dobelle could be required to repay triple the $98,000 he allegedly misspent.
The lawsuit came after state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha in July issued a scathing report accusing Dobelle of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in school funds on personal expenses as well as wasteful and lavish public expenses.
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 at their limits, with an outstanding balance of more than $47,000.
The attorney general’s office, in its own investigation, found that Dobelle put hundreds of personal purchases on university-related credit cards, often charging thousands of dollars to the school in a single month.
While Dobelle eventually repaid many of the expenses, the payments were often made months or even years late and were made with backdated checks to make the repayments appear timely.
The lawsuit alleged that Dobelle attempted to disguise personal expenditures by filing false statements. On these reports, he claimed to be attending conferences, raising money, or doing other university business when he was primarily on personal business.
In one case, Dobelle took his wife and friends on a trip to Cuba, charging the university $3,640. He also charged the school for multiple personal trips to California to attend events at the Bohemian Grove, a private men’s club in Monte Rio, of which he was a member, the suit said.
Westfield State has been hit with its own legal bills — so far totaling $1.36 million — related to investigations of Dobelle’s conduct, according to spokeswoman Molly Watson.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced legal fees paid to Ross Garber.