LENOX -- To describe Evan Dobelle, Pittsfield native and two-term mayor from 1973-77, as beleaguered is a clear understatement.
Allegations about excessive personal spending and violations of school policy during his presidency at Westfield State University have been tumbling out. This past Thursday, state Inspector General Glenn Cunha -- whose job is to detect and prevent fraud, waste and abuse in the spending of public funds -- sent a blistering two-page letter to the school’s trustees.
He cited the use of university credit cards for personal expenses, which Dobelle says have been repaid. He also wrote that scholarship money and other funds were used "indiscriminately with little or no consideration" for their earmarked purposes.
Cunha urged the trustees, who met with state education officials in Boston on Friday, to act quickly to scrutinize not only Dobelle’s spending but his justification that he has brought the former state college attended by many Berkshirites millions of dollars of "return on investment."
Most ominously, according to the Boston Globe, the inspector general expressed "concerns about broader allegations of misconduct in connection with spending" not only at the university but also at the foundation that does the campus fundraising.
At the Friday meeting, according to the Globe’s boston.com, the state’s Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland called reading in the newspaper about Dobelle’s lavish spending as "one of the worst moments" in his 40-year career.
Calling it a "sad day," Freeland blasted the Westfield trustees for failing to act despite Dobelle’s "clear and consistent pattern of charging personal expenses in large amounts to a university credit card in clear violation of institutional policy and state ethics laws."
While Patrick administration officials did not tell the trustees what to do, they voiced anger -- Board of Higher Education member Lou Riccardi called Dobelle’s reaction "dismissive and offensive," and demanded tougher action by the trustees appointed by Governor Patrick.
Dobelle appeared before the Board of Higher Education behind closed doors on Friday afternoon.
In a statement e-mailed to The Eagle and other media afterwards, Dobelle wrote: "I appreciated the opportunity to meet with state higher education leadership and remain transparent, upbeat and focused on the good work of the university."
During the session, he insisted that he had done nothing wrong, according to published reports.
But after the two-hour meeting on Friday, Charles F. Desmond, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, declared: "I’m more concerned today than I was yesterday."
Asked by a reporter whether he plans to resign from his $240,920 a year post, Dobelle replied: "Oh gosh no. Why would I?"
In a late-evening phone conversation on Friday, Dobelle told The Eagle that he remains optimistic he will emerge unscathed from the investigation.
"I’ve never been anything but optimistic," he declared.
However, Freeland, the state Board of Education commissioner, said that during Dobelle’s five-year tenure, Westfield’s fundraising has lagged well behind other state schools -- "fundraising was dead last by a lot in the past two years," he told reporters.
Last month, Dobelle, 68, had rejected a review by Westfield State’s O’Connor and Drew accounting firm as sloppy and defaming after a finding of widespread violations of the university policy against using institutional credit cards for often poorly documented personal expenses.
Among the $200,000 in credit card bills: a $3,503 reception for Berkshire County guidance counselors in October 2008, $12,409 in Tanglewood tickets over two seasons in 2009 and 2010, $1,190 in tickets for Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, and a $621 dinner with former Gov. Jane Swift and others at Rouge, the posh West Stockbridge restaurant.
In Dobelle’s view, all his spending was designed to enhance Westfield’s reputation and its fundraising prowess.
The state inspector general backed up the accountant’s report as "accurate and well-supported," deeming Dobelle’s expenses excessive, unreasonable and in violation of school policy.
Dobelle’s spokeswoman, Molly Watson, issued a statement to news media: "Westfield State stands by the accuracy of its determination there is substantial [return on investment] on the expenditures at issue. We look forward to working with the IG to resolve this."
The inspector general urged the trustees to keep a close watch on Dobelle’s future expenses and make sure that spending on travel, events and fundraising are consistent with the campus budget and in the best interest of the students.
Earlier reports challenging Dobelle’s spending resulted in a canceled $100,000 donation to Westfield and triggered demands from Governor Patrick and state education officials for more details.
Is Dobelle’s presidency in danger? The Globe reported that he has told colleagues and friends that the controversy will pass and that he will continue his leadership for years to come. He expressed similar optimism when he met with the editorial board of the Springfield Republican newspaper this past week, saying he expects to weather the storm of scrutiny.
But a just-published investigation by the Globe questioned Dobelle’s description of a fundraising trip to San Francisco last May as a major success. A more candid appraisal by a staffer was altered by the university president to delete her account of how she dropped off information at the front desks of seven foundations without ever meeting any officials or asking for money, the newspaper reported.
"Fundraising takes time, and you have to take baby steps to be introduced to your prospective target," responded Watson, the university spokeswoman.
"I’m always upbeat; I’m always looking to the future. And I’m trying to be transparent," Dobelle told the editors. "I understand and regret deeply the oversights and mistakes."
In that interview, Dobelle deflected criticism by insisting that his spending paid off through increased donations, a distinguished speaker series, new undergraduate majors, expansion of the international exchange program and construction on campus.
He also claimed that school pride has surged -- a dubious assumption given the swirl of negative publicity surrounding his leadership.
"Students are making Westfield State their first choice," he argued, characterizing the debate over his spending as a "distraction" from the educational mission and condemning "the tone and sensationalism" of media coverage.
His mea culpas and positive spin aside, some may wonder how precisely Dobelle’s ethical and moral compass is calibrated.
But he’s not to be counted out. During his presidency at the University of Hawaii from 2001 to 2004, he faced similar allegations of lavish travel spending and of taking too much credit for improved enrollment and funding, among other missteps.
The Board of Regents fired him for cause on June 15, 2004, but that didn’t stick. Under threat of a lawsuit, the university negotiated a mediated agreement that yielded his resignation in return for a $1.6 million cash settlement, a lifetime state pension, a $2 million paid-in-full life-insurance policy and a two-year research post. The university also paid legal bills totaling $1.2 million.
And, most revealing of all, the settlement found no wrongdoing either by Dobelle or the Board of Regents.
Given that track record, any prediction on Dobelle’s prospects for survival at Westfield would be foolhardy.
To contact Clarence Fanto: firstname.lastname@example.org
or (413) 637-2551.