Metro

Ex-Westfield State head to pay $185,000 to resolve claims

The settlement requires Evan Dobelle to pay triple the $44,000 in university funds that Dobelle allegedly spent on himself and did not repay.
Matthew Cavanaugh/Globe Photo/File 2013
The settlement requires Evan Dobelle to pay triple the $44,000 in university funds that Dobelle allegedly spent on himself and did not repay.

Former Westfield State University president Evan S. Dobelle has agreed to pay $185,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the attorney general, ending almost two years of litigation and controversy over his spending of school funds on international travel, limousines, fancy hotels, and expensive meals.

The settlement, which is awaiting a judge’s final approval, requires Dobelle to pay triple the $44,000 in university funds that Dobelle allegedly spent on himself and did not repay. He also must pay more than $50,000 in attorney’s fees and costs, according to the agreement filed Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court.

In addition, Dobelle would be banned from working for — or even volunteering at — “any public institution of higher education within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” under the settlement.

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“I’m pleased that he has finally been forced to take some financial responsibility for his flagrant and chronic misuse of taxpayers’ and students’ money,” said state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, who issued a scathing report in 2014 on Dobelle’s excessive spending.

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Dobelle “has a long history of taking public money that should have been directed to educational purposes and spending it lavishly on himself,” Cunha said in a statement, noting Dobelle had faced similar allegations at previous jobs. “It happened at the University of Hawaii, at the New England Board of Higher Education, and most recently at Westfield.”

Dobelle, who abruptly resigned as Westfield State’s president in 2013 after a series of Globe exposés on his spending, did not respond to requests for comment.

On campus, some expressed relief that the very public controversy with Dobelle is over.

“We are thrilled at the prospect of finally ending this tumultuous chapter of our history,” said Buzz Hoagland, chairman of the school’s biology department. “Evan Dobelle caused deep divisions in our community that have yet to fully heal. We prefer to spend our money, talent, and energies doing what we do best — educating students.”

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Dobelle, a self-described visionary and “change agent,” came to Westfield State in 2008 promising to make the former teachers college into a world-class institution.

Almost immediately, his spending habits alarmed some people connected to the university, taking a delegation to Asia that ran up a four-day hotel bill of $8,000 in Bangkok.

In Dobelle’s first 68 months as president, he charged the university for 76 out-of-state trips, records show, many of them to the exclusive Bohemian Grove men’s club outside San Francisco.

In hiring Dobelle, board members had overlooked the fact that Dobelle was fired in Hawaii amid allegations of wasteful spending, though Hawaii officials eventually withdrew the firing when Dobelle threatened to sue.

Eventually, amid mounting criticism of his spending at Westfield, Dobelle retired in November 2013, but he did not go quietly.

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He sued Westfield State officials, alleging that he had been driven out in a political coup and demanding more than $1.6 million in damages.

Dobelle argued that his “long-celebrated career” was “swiftly, unjustly, and perhaps irreparably damaged.”

But inspector general Cunha found that criticisms of Dobelle’s spending were well-founded, concluding in July 2014 that he used hundreds of thousands of dollars from university accounts to pay for trips, electronics, and even a portrait of himself.

Cunha also found that Dobelle filed false reports to try to cover his improper spending.

For example, Dobelle in 2013 brought friends and family on a university trip to Cuba, urging them to falsely claim to be Westfield State officials.

The next month, the state attorney general’s office filed suit against Dobelle, charging that he misspent nearly $100,000 in university funds on personal expenses, violating the state’s False Claims Act.

Under the settlement, the attorney general’s office would turn over $44,000 to the university and $25,000 to Cunha’s office to help pay for its investigation. The rest goes to the state.

The settlement would not recoup all the money Dobelle is alleged to have misspent while he was president.

Instead, it represents the amount that he did not previously repay the school.

In addition, it doesn’t include any money misspent from donations to the school’s fund-raising arm, the Westfield State Foundation.

In a statement, Westfield State interim presdient Elizabeth Preston said the school is gratified by the agreement.

She said that “it was our hope Dr. Dobelle would be held accountable for his actions, which are not reflective of what this university stands for or tolerates.

“When approved, this resolution will conclude an unfortunate chapter in our history and allow us to move forward, fully focused on the bright possibilities ahead of us,” Preston said.

Officials at the Westfield State Foundation said they, too, are glad the Dobelle era has come to an end.

“We certainly don’t have the feeling that he’s a drag on the foundation anymore,” said Edward Marth, who was chairman of the Westfield State Foundation during the period Dobelle racked up tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses on the foundation’s credit card.

While Dobelle’s spending had pushed the foundation to the brink of bankruptcy, Marth said it has since recovered financially and has been able to increase financial aid “rather substantially.”

Dobelle previously dropped his federal lawsuit against the university’s trustees, accountants, and lawyers, as well as state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, alleging they violated his civil and contractual rights by forcing him to retire.

Through a lawyer, Dobelle said he was abandoning the suit because, “It is his wish that WSU continue the very strong progress it has made in the past several years.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.