Report: Evan Dobelle billed Westfield State for own gain
BOSTON -- Former Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle of Pittsfield racked up tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses and travel costs on university credit cards and misrepresented much of the spending as university-related business, Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn Cunha’s office said in a report released Thursday.
The report says the office found numerous instances of excessive or wasteful spending by Dobelle, who resigned in November 2013 after nearly six years as president.
"His lavish tastes, poor planning and cavalier attitude about university funds were out of line with spending practices suitable for Massachusetts colleges and universities," the reports says.
Among a laundry list of examples, the office said Dobelle charged two Kindle e-book readers, a digital camera and a laptop computer using the credit card issued to him by the public university, which has more than 5,000 undergraduate students on its campus in Western Massachusetts.
He also commissioned a portrait of himself in 2013 to be unveiled for the university’s 175th anniversary, and billed the $777 cost to the university’s nonprofit fundraising arm, the Westfield State Foundation, even though the expense was never authorized beforehand, the report says.
Dobelle’s lawyer, Ross Garber, 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.
"Millions of dollars have been spent to oust Dr. Dobelle and to justify that decision," he wrote.
Dobelle, 68, was twice elected mayor of Pittsfield in 1973 and 1975. Dobelle was 28 when he was elected mayor the first time, the youngest person to hold that office in city history. He still lives in Pittsfield.
He previously served as president of the University of Hawaii, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., City College of San Francisco, and Middlesex Community College, and was also president of the New England Board of Higher Education, He has filed a federal lawsuit alleging state and university officials violated his constitutional rights. He is seeking unspecified damages.
Cunha’s office, which launched its review last July following media reports of Dobelle’s questionable expenses, also found that Dobelle had instructed family and friends to falsely claim they were university officials in order to gain travel authority for a 2013 trip to Cuba.
In addition, the report says, 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.
Interim Westfield State University President Elizabeth Hall Preston said in a statement Thursday that the university has taken a number of steps to improve its financial and budgetary controls in the wake of the Dobelle controversy and will take any further steps recommended by state officials.
Preston said the university has already eliminated university and foundation-issued credit cards in favor of "procurement cards" that resemble credit cards but with "enhanced" controls. The university is also in the process of centralizing travel through an outside vendor, she said.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley told the Boston Business Journal that the inspector general’s reported raised serious concerns about Dobelle’s spending at Westfield State, while noting that her office has been conducting a separate investigation into the matter.
Coakley said her office "anticipates additional action soon," but declined to elaborate.
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