OIG: Fmr. WSU President Dobelle knowingly violated school policy

Dobelle was accused of misusing WSU credit cards.

WESTFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – After a year of reviewing the spending practices of former Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle, the Office of the Inspector General have released their findings.

The OIG determined that Dobelle knowingly ignored WSU policies, misled the WSU Board of Trustees, abused his authority, exploited public resources for his personal benefit and violated the public trust.

Last August, Former Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle claimed he never did anything wrong. At one meeting on August 29th, 2013 he said, “I made an error. I have three silver credit cards, and a couple times you make a mistake. Maybe nobody else makes mistakes like that.”

At another meeting on August 2nd, 2013, he said, “We take people to dinner who give us tens of thousands of dollars that’s what we do here.”

When Dobelle resigned on November 8th, 2013, he told Westfield State faculty and students, everything he did and spent money on, benefited the school and its non-profit, Westfield State Foundation.

However, the state Inspector General disagrees. A new report found that Dobelle “knowingly and willfully violated University and Foundation policies.”

From 2008 to 2013, Dobelle charged $450,000 to University and Foundation credit cards. Of those, $85,000 for personal use. And tens of thousands of dollars, the Inspector General identified as “spent for primarily personal purposes.”

Then the report goes on to say, “Dobelle repeatedly made false or misleading…statements…to hide his improper actions or to justify wasteful spending. One example, a trip to Asia.

Inspector General Glenn Cunha wrote that 10-person trip in 2008 to Asia nearly bankrupted the Westfield State Foundation. The school had to spend $400,000 to keep the non-profit afloat.

To read the OIG’s entire review, Click Here.

Dobelle’s lawyer, Ross Garber, sent 22News the following statement regarding OIG’s review:

Dr. Dobelle received a copy of the report late today and has not had an opportunity to review it. But it is time to stop the effort to tarnish Dr. Dobelle’s reputation and diminish the University’s achievements under his leadership. Millions of dollars have been spent to oust Dr. Dobelle and to justify that decision. Yet a federal judge has refused to dismiss allegations against the Commissioner of Higher Education and the former WSU Board Chair that they violated Dr. Dobelle’s constitutional rights. At some point these issues must be resolved in a way that acknowledges Dr. Dobelle’s character and accomplishments and fulfills the University’s legal obligations.

Below is a statement from Westfield State University regard OIG’s review:

Today, the Office of the Inspector General issued its report Review of Spending Practices by Former Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle. The university and its Board of Trustees would like to thank Inspector General Glenn Cunha, Director of Oversight and Investigations Eileen O’Brien, and the OIG staff for their dedication and commitment throughout the investigation.

The OIG’s investigation commenced in July of 2013. From the outset of the investigation to the present, the university has fully cooperated with the OIG. The university produced to the OIG hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and other information, and assisted in coordinating dozens of witness interviews. The board also retained experienced outside counsel, Fish & Richardson, to conduct a comprehensive, independent investigation of the issues raised by the OIG as well as spending, employment, and leadership issues at the university and the Westfield State Foundation.

The OIG’s report highlights numerous instances of improper conduct, including flagrant misuse and waste of university funds and resources, by former President Evan S. Dobelle. Although the board remains deeply troubled by the actions identified in the OIG’s report, it is gratified that the OIG’s findings fully support the board’s decision to place former President Dobelle on administrative leave and to investigate his conduct.

The report also describes key proactive steps undertaken by the university to date. Beginning in the fall of 2013, in the early stages of the OIG’s investigation, the university instituted significant reforms and improvements. On October 16, 2013, the board placed former President Dobelle on administrative leave and directed its outside counsel to conduct a thorough internal investigation. At that time, the board also appointed Dr. Elizabeth Hall Preston as Interim President. Dr. Preston, a highly-respected member of the faculty and university community, formerly served as the university’s Vice President for Academic Affairs.

President Preston immediately restructured the university’s senior administration, focusing on enhancing compliance, financial transparency, and accountability. The university and the board requested that the commonwealth’s Comptroller independently review all policies, procedures and practices related to university finances. Following that review, in April 2014, the Comptroller issued a report that identified areas for improvement and validated many of the corrective actions implemented by the University, confirming that the university was moving in the right direction.

To strengthen the university’s financial controls, the university and the board have taken proactive steps to identify and minimize risks. The board has established a new Audit Committee charged with overseeing all external financial audits, ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and monitoring internal controls. The Audit Committee is assisted by a new internal audit and risk manager in the University’s Division of Administration and Finance.

The university also has revamped and revised its budgeting process, significantly increasing transparency regarding financial information and involving the campus community in the stewardship of university resources. To eliminate the potential for abuse of university and Foundation-issued credit cards, the university has transitioned from the use of credit cards to procurement cards (p-cards), which resemble credit cards but have enhanced controls. This improvement was recommended by the Comptroller, who has encouraged agencies across the commonwealth to use p-cards. This spring, the university interviewed vendors and is in the process of centralizing travel through an external vendor.

“We will review the report and promptly take any additional actions suggested in its findings and recommendations,” said board Chair Elizabeth D. Scheibel.

The disruption and upheaval related to these unfortunate events described in the OIG’s report cannot be overstated. Despite this, these painful challenges have led the university to grow stronger and more committed to its goals. Today, the university—which has a 175-year history of academic excellence—is a recognized leader in many areas of higher education and maintains strong relationships with its students, alumni, and the local community. The university ranks first among all comprehensive Massachusetts state universities for student retention and graduation rates, and ranks first among the state’s public universities for online learning, according to the 2014 edition of the US News and World Report. The university continues to see very strong application and enrollment numbers and will welcome more students on its campus this fall than at any other time in the university’s history.

Recent donor support for the university also has been strong. In March of this year, the university far exceeded its fundraising goal of $100,000 for its 175th Anniversary Scholarship Gala. The sold-out gala was completely underwritten by community sponsors, allowing all proceeds to go towards student scholarships, and for the establishment of a 175th Anniversary scholarship fund.

“While this has been a difficult period for all of us, the faculty and staff of the university have persevered and focused on the work of providing our students with an outstanding education. We approach the start of our new academic year with a sense of excitement and new momentum, facing our challenges from a position of strength,” said President Preston.

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