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Coakley sues Dobelle for repayment of $100,000

NORTHAMPTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit Thursday against Evan S. Dobelle, alleging the former president of Westfield State University spent nearly $100,000 of public money for personal use and family vacations during his tenure.

The complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court comes less than a week after state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha released a scathing report of Dobelle’s spending practices. Cunha’s yearlong review identified $180,000 in questionable spending and concluded that Dobelle “abused his authority, exploited public resources for his personal benefit and violated the public trust.”

The inspector general’s job is to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse in government. The attorney general is the state’s chief prosecutor.

“We allege the former president of this university blatantly misused public funds for trips that were nothing but weeklong vacations with family and friends,” Coakley said in a statement Thursday. “This pattern of inappropriately spending money is unacceptable, as leaders of public schools should be enforcing their policies instead of knowingly violating them for their own personal benefit.”

Dobelle’s attorney, Ross H. Garber, wrote in an email that the attorney general’s action is not surprising “given that she has been presented with only limited facts and a one-sided version of the story — her staff did not ask for Dr. Dobelle’s perspective.”

Ross wrote that “in court ... both sides are heard, and decisions are based on evidence, not innuendo and conjecture. Dr. Dobelle looks forward to a full and fair airing of the truth and to reclaiming his reputation.”

Garber is representing Dobelle in state and federal lawsuits in which Dobelle alleges state and university officials violated his constitutional rights amid probes into his spending. He said a federal judge magistrate has already ruled against the attorney general’s office on a motion to dismiss Dobelle’s federal complaint.

Dobelle served as president of Westfield State University from January 2008 until his resignation in November 2013.

Coakley said her office began investigating allegations of improper spending by Dobelle in the fall of 2013, following an initial report by the state inspector general regarding Dobelle’s improper spending of university funds.

Her complaint addresses allegations that Dobelle used school-issued credit cards and school funds to make personal purchases and take vacations costing nearly $100,000, including family trips to Cuba, meals at high-end restaurants and frequent gatherings put on by the Bohemian Club, a private men’s social club in California, of which Dobelle is a member.

Among those restaurants were The Slanted Door in San Francisco, The Palm and Bistrot du Coin in Washington, and Rouge Restaurant in Stockbridge, according to the lawsuit.

Coakley alleges Dobelle knowingly submitted to the university false claims for payment of personal expenses totalling at least $59,000 and that he made at least $39,000 worth of travel requests, falsely stating those trips were for official university business.

The actions are in violation of the state’s False Claims Act, Dobelle’s employment contract, university policies and the state’s conflict of interest law, according to Coakley.

In a statement, Coakley said Dobelle appears to have reimbursed personal expenses, though he often submitted his reimbursements months after making purchases and in some instances using backdated checks to make his payments appear more timely.

The lawsuit also alleges Dobelle submitted travel requests falsely stating at least 16 university-arranged and paid trips that cost the school more than $39,000 were for official university business when they were primarily personal in nature.

Those charges include a February 2012 trip to Cuba with his wife and friends and multiple trips to California to attend events at Bohemian Grove, a property owned by the Bohemian Club in Monte Rio, Calif. The lawsuit states Dobelle was a member of one of the Bohemian Grove’s camps called “Land of Happiness” and he allegedly charged the costs of “business” meals with fellow Land of Happiness campmates to Westfield State, according to the attorney general’s review of the names most frequently found in Dobelle’s meal reimbursement forms and those found on the roster of Land of Happiness members.

“Review of Dobelle’s e­mail correspondence and daily calendar revealed extensive personal plans during purported university­-related trips and, perhaps even more telling, his time sheets reveal during the WSU­-funded trips he took days off as vacation and personal days,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint states that Dobelle had two “primary methods” by which he arranged for Westfield State University to pay for his travel that was primarily personal in nature.

The first method was to schedule trips around a conference or other “official” event, extend the length of his stay well beyond the event, and then charge the entire hotel cost to the university, according to the lawsuit. Coakley alleges the second method was to schedule a trip with an “ill­-defined, general purpose,” such as “fundraising,” or to schedule a meeting with a charitable foundation.

“Dobelle typically provided few details regarding these trips and did not prepare grant proposals or other materials for presentation,” according to the lawsuit.

Coakley is seeking damages, civil penalties, costs and attorney’s fees associated with what she described as an ongoing investigation, along with the costs of the state inspector general’s investigation. The AG’s office said it continues to review the inspector general’s report released last week and said there is the potential for additional legal actions in the case.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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