The former president of Westfield State University, Evan Dobelle, must now answer to allegations brought by the Massachusetts Attorney General that he misused public funds. Dobelle’s attorney said he looks forward to having his day in court and to restoring his tarnished reputation.
A 27-page complaint filed in state court in Boston Thursday by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley accuses Dobelle of charging the university for personal items, trips, meals in fancy restaurants, and family vacations totaling nearly $100,000.
The suit accuses Dobelle of violating school policy and state law when he used school-issued credit cards for $59,000 in personal expenses and $39,000 for travel he falsely claimed was for official university business. His actions allegedly violate the state’s False Claims Act making Dobelle liable for triple damages if Coakley prevails.
Coakley told WCVB-TV Dobelle’s pattern of inappropriately spending state money is unacceptable.
"I know he has done some good things for the school, but this ' I'm a bold leader, so I don't have to follow the rules' is wrong and that is why we brought the suit."
The attorney general began an investigation last fall into allegations of Dobelle’s reckless spending. According to her office, a review of credit card statements and records revealed Dobelle made hundreds of personal purchases using university credit cards during his six-year tenure. The purchases included hotel stays, meals, and plane tickets for himself and family members.
The complaint states Dobelle received several reminders from the university staff about restricting the use of school credit cards for official business. He allegedly responded by blaming the charges on human error or mistakes by the credit card companies’ computers. Dobelle also allegedly denied authorizing some of the charges. He also allegedly backdated some checks to make it appear he had repaid the school in a timely manner.
Dobelle’s attorney Ross Garber said Dobelle looks forward to defending himself against the allegations in the lawsuit.
" I will say I am not surprised the attorney general would take this action, because she has been presented with just one side of the story. So, Dr. Dobelle looks forward to the full truth coming out, which is what happens in court."
Dobelle has said his jet-setting was part of an effort to boost the WSU brand.
" At all times Evan Dobelle acted in the best interests of Westfield State University," said Garber, who added Dobelle looks forward to " reclaiming his reputation."
The suit by the attorney general comes on the heels of a scathing report by the Massachusetts Inspector General. The 71-page report details at least 20 instances where investigators said Dobelle knowingly and willfully spent state funds for personal purposes and made false or misleading statements to cover it up.
Inspector General Glenn Cunha said Dobelle’s freewheeling spending financially crippled the school’s fundraising organization and resulted in little benefit to the university.
" Here we have the president of a university who is engaging in this outrageous behavior," Cunha said in an interview.
The attorney general’s office is still reviewing the inspector general’s report. A spokesperson for Coakley said the lawsuit filed Thursday does not foreclose the potential for additional action.
A spokesperson for Westfield State declined comment. The school’s board of trustees is considering scheduling a special meeting later this month to review the inspector general’s report.