Another piece of heavy artillery was moved into place in the legal fight between the state of Massachusetts and Evan Dobelle, the former president of Westfield State University, when state Attorney General Martha Coakley filed suit against Dobelle on August 7. Coakley’s suit identifies a total of $98,000 in WSU funds that Dobelle allegedly directed to his own use through what Massachusetts law designates as false claims. The suit asks for triple damages—$98,000 times three—plus costs.
Most of the money the AG is suing to recover was used for travel. In 2008, for example, WSU paid more than $6,800 for Dobelle to make two trips to California to attend events hosted by the Bohemian Club, an elite men’s club that he had belonged to since he served as president of the City College of San Francisco from 1990 to 1995. Dobelle attended Bohemian Club events at WSU’s expense at least twice a year for his entire tenure at WSU, though the trips, the AG alleges, had only a tenuous relationship, if any, to WSU business.
“Recurring” expenses, the AG alleges, also included meals at “high-end restaurants in some of Dobelle’s favorite cities, including the Slanted Door in San Francisco, The Palm in Washington, D.C., Bistro do Coin in Washington, D.C., and … Rouge restaurant in Stockbridge, Mass.”
Dobelle reimbursed WSU for some personal expenses, but often did so months late, sometimes backdating checks to disguise the tardiness of the reimbursement, the AG alleges.
Dobelle had earlier sued three Westfield State trustees and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, Richard Freeland, in federal court in Springfield for conspiring to oust him from the presidency of the school. In addition, he sued in Hampden Superior Court to force WSU to pay all his legal fees, including expenses connected with the federal suit. The Advocate asked Brad Puffer, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, if a secondary reason for the attorney general’s action was to deter Dobelle from proceeding with his suits. “We wouldn’t discuss litigation strategy,” Puffer said.
Even more than the attorney general’s suit, a report issued a week earlier by the state Inspector General puts Dobelle’s financial modus operandi under a microscope. The IG’s report delves back beyond Dobelle’s time at Westfield State to his previous tenures as president of the University of Hawaii and head of the New England Board of Higher Education; it also examines Dobelle’s use of funds from the Westfield State University Foundation as well as from the university itself. The AG’s suit, on the other hand, “is focused on public dollars [meaning university funds], not on Foundation money, because some of that comes from private donors,” Puffer told the Advocate.
The resulting disclosures by the IG challenge the point some might make in Dobelle’s defense: that Dobelle was a visionary whose extravagant spending was the unintentional result of poor recordkeeping, the press of business, and his preoccupation with improving the university’s standing.
There is, for example, the matter of frequent flyer miles and hotel rewards points, which, the Inspector General alleges, Dobelle converted into subsidies for his own personal travel, though they were accumulated with travel paid for by Westfield State University and its foundation. Because Dobelle habitually chose expensive hotels, the number of such rewards added up to large subsidies, according to this and other items from the IG’s report:
“Over the course of his tenure at Westfield State, Dobelle earned more than 1,630,000 Hilton Honors rewards points from University- and Foundation-funded travel. Hilton records indicate that none of these points were redeemed for University business trips. Dobelle’s 1,630,000 points could have been redeemed for approximately 54 nights of free lodging at the Hilton Garden Inn in Springfield—a hotel that the University uses annually to lodge honorary degree recipients and speakers for commencement. Had the University been able to use the reward points for this purpose, the University would have saved approximately $11,300.
“In addition, Dobelle earned at least 706,707 Hyatt Gold Passport points, redeemable at Hyatt locations worldwide … records show that Dobelle redeemed these points for his personal use. In March 2010, Dobelle stayed at the Hotel Victor in Miami Beach, Florida, a Hyatt-affiliated facility. Dobelle’s calendar notes that there were two reservations: ‘#1 from 4 March to 12 March. #2 from 12 March to 14 March.’ Hyatt records indicate that Dobelle purchased the first reservation, for eight nights, with 144,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points. The vast majority of these points were earned through University-funded travel.”
What emerges from the IG’s report is the picture of a university president who used the institution’s resources not just to enhance his lifestyle, but to bolster a larger-than-life identity for himself. This item comes from the IG’s inquiry into a trip to Asia that Dobelle organized in 2008 for himself and nine others, including two people not connected to WSU, at a total cost of $127,000:
“The Foundation’s itemized receipts for the delegation’s eight-room, four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok totaled $20,845. Notably, Dobelle had previously stayed at the Oriental Hotel. In 2005, he led a NEHBE delegation to Asia. The invoices for both trips identify him as ‘Ambassador’ Dobelle, which is the honorific he used for himself with hotel staff, according to one member of the WSU delegation.”
Another component of an identity Dobelle seemed determined to maintain at all costs was the affiliation with the Bohemian Club. The club, founded in 1872 as an organization for journalists and artists, once numbered Mark Twain among its members. It expanded to include military commanders and industrialists, and today its roster bears the names of politicians and corporate CEOs. Its eerie ritual involving the burning of an effigy of “Dull Care” under a huge stone owl, and its Shakespearean motto, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” are relics of a Gothic romanticism that contributed to Bill Clinton’s famous quip, “Did you say Bohemian Club? That’s where all those rich Republicans go up and stand naked against redwood trees, right?” But membership is a sign that one is a part of the elite, that one plays with the big boys.
With WSU’s resources behind him, Dobelle had access to an opulent life style; without them, not so much, according to the picture that emerges from the IG’s report. “During the period reviewed,” it noted, “Dobelle paid an average of more than $800 per month in interest on five personal credit cards. Typically he carried a substantial balance every month on his personal credit cards and often made the minimum monthly payments. If he had—and had been able to—put all of his personal charges on his own credit cards, he would have carried larger unpaid balances, for which he would have been charged even more interest.” In other words, said the IG, “By using University and Foundation credit cards for personal expenses, Dobelle avoided having significant interest and finance charges on personal credit cards.”
And last year, Dobelle commissioned a portrait of himself that cost over $770, which the Foundation agreed to pay for after the fact. Members were under the impression that the portrait would be one of a series of portraits of WSU presidents, but no commission for other portraits was ever given. After Dobelle’s controversial exit from the school, the institution decided the portrait was not wanted there. So now it belongs to Dobelle.
How did Dobelle manage to travel, sometimes with people unconnected to WSU, throughout the U.S. and abroad, staying at expensive hotels, eating at upscale restaurants and generating rewards points that had a multiplier effect on the benefits he received from WSU? The Advocate talked with UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons about how off-campus expenditures and credit cards are handled there.
“There’s an oversight system where you have to submit documents in advance and have them reviewed by a committee,” said Fitzgibbons. “If I wanted to go to a conference, I would have to submit information about the conference to my supervisor and to a business manager-type person. They search around and make sure we get the best deal. I could not fly first-class somewhere and I could not stay at the best available hotel. That would be flagged well before I left for the airport. If there are meals outside the conference, you’re allowed a per diem, so you have to submit receipts when you come back. A lot of times you’re supposed to submit some documentation when you come back to show that you did what you said what you were doing. People don’t just sail off on the university’s dime.” (Nor, he added, do they drink on the university’s dime; alcohol is off the list of permitted expenses.)
However, Fitzgibbons acknowledged, “If it’s a professor, something is going to get flagged by the department head. It’s a difficult situation if you’ve got the president of the college telling you he’s going to do something. There’s a power imbalance there.”
And what did all Dobelle’s spending do for Westfield State? Little or nothing, according to the IG. Last year, Dobelle wrote the WSU trustees that his travel and promotional efforts had gained $3 million in revenue for the university and led to the matriculation of 123 international students from 50 countries in the fall of 2013. But all but 19 of those students, the IG found, were actually citizens or residents of the U.S. who were of foreign extraction, not students with visas coming from foreign countries. Athletic programs, it turned out, had been a major factor in foreign student enrollment, and that enrollment had brought WSU about $600,000 during Dobelle’s tenure, not $3 million. Meanwhile, according to the AG, the Asian trip of 2008 had contributed to a financial crisis for the WSU Foundation. And records of all the commonwealth’s former state colleges show that during the years Dobelle served as president, Westfield State was the least successful in building its endowment.
The AG’s choice to sue Dobelle under the state’s False Claims Act, and the statement in the IG’s report that “Dobelle knowingly disregarded University and Foundation policies, misled the WSU Board of Trustees, abused his authority and exploited public resources for his personal benefit,” move the argument about Dobelle’s lavish spending an ominous step from where it was just a few months ago, before the commonwealth was committed to language expressing its view that the overspending was intentional.
The Advocate discussed that point with Dobelle’s attorney, Ross H. Garber of Hartford, a specialist in representing people accused of public corruption. Garber, who defended governors John Rowland of Connecticut and Mark Sanford of South Carolina when they were threatened with impeachment, told the Advocate, “I would just urge people to wait to make any judgment until they see the other side of the story. Both the AG’s suit and the Inspector General’s report are one-sided versions of events and were prepared without any input from Dr. Dobelle. Dr. Dobelle’s version has not been aired yet and there are now three cases in court, so I expect the full story to come out.”
At the moment, then, no one seems likely to back down in a battle that has already taken a severe toll on WSU, its foundation and its students.•