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State report: Dobelle raided public funds for own use many times

Former Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle, 2013

Former Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle, 2013

WESTFIELD — Westfield State University’s ex-president who resigned after reports of extravagant spending of public money, repeatedly abused his authority, exploited more than $180,000 of public money for personal use and violated the public trust, according inspector general.

A 60-page report found that Evan S. Dobelle made “frequent and extensive” use of university credit cards for personal expenses and travel costs, despite the university’s specific prohibition of the practice, then misrepresented much of the spending as university business. Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha’s report goes well beyond the scope of earlier reviews of Dobelle’s spending practices by a law and accounting firm hired by the university.

“As documented in this report’s findings, Dobelle knowingly disregarded University and Foundation policies, misled the WSU board of trustees, abused his authority and exploited public resources for personal benefit,” the report said. “Dobelle’s self-characterization as a ‘visionary’ does not absolve him from the obligation to follow the rules applicable to his position.”

Cunha’s report details a bevy of examples of excessive or wasteful spending by Dobelle, diving into more than $450,000 in expenses the former president racked up on university-related credit cards during his six years. Of that total, Dobelle acknowledged $85,000 in personal charges, but investigators identified “tens of thousands of dollars in additional charges that Dobelle spent for primarily or exclusively personal purposes,” the report states.

Additionally, Cunha accused Dobelle of repeatedly submitting documents falsely portraying personal spending as having a WSU-related purpose, particularly when it came to his travel expenses. He said Dobelle diverted the costs of multiple personal vacations and meals to the school and its foundation. The report states that he took at least 110 out-of-state business trips, including 17 such trips to San Francisco, in which he charged the school more than $63,000 for mostly personal expenses.

During one trip to San Francisco in 2010 that Dobelle characterized as a fundraising trip, he spent more than two weeks at the Bohemian Grove camp, a private, all-male social club to which he belonged. Investigators found no evidence that Dobelle met with potential donors, attended an annual meeting of a coalition of urban and metropolitan universities or conducted other fundraising business, yet he billed the Westfield State Foundation $2,841 for airfare, hotels, meals and limousine service for the trip.

The investigation found that 10 of Dobelle’s San Francisco trips coincided with the Bohemian’s annual festivities.

Dobelle declined to be interviewed under oath by the inspector general as part of its investigation. His lawyer, Ross Garber, on Thursday said his client has not had an opportunity to review the report. But Garber said in an email it is “time to stop the effort to tarnish” Dobelle’s reputation and achievements.

Dobelle, a former mayor of Pittsfield who previously served as president of the University of Hawaii and president of the New England Board of Higher Education, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging state and university officials violated his constitutional rights. He is seeking unspecified damages.

Other findings detailed in Cunha’s report include Dobelle’s instructions to family and friends to falsely claim they were adjunct faculty or assistant coaches in order to gain travel authority for a 2013 trip to Cuba.

The report also documents Dobelle’s repeated false or misleading statements to school trustees to justify his improper actions and wasteful spending, including claims that his foreign travel had attracted 123 international students to WSU in the fall of 2013, bringing in $1.3 million per year. The report, however, said that most of those students are non-U.S. citizens who are permanent residents of Massachusetts and pay in-state tuition.

In another example, Dobelle frequently billed personal trips to the university claiming they were for meetings with prospective donors. During a May 2013 trip to San Francisco, for example, he claimed to have appointments with four university alumni who were now “high-tech” executives. But Cunha’s office said Dobelle did not have any such appointments and that the primary motive for the trip was to attend a wedding.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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