BOSTON, Mass. – The former president of Westfield State University (WSU) has been sued over allegations he used school-issued credit cards and school funds to make personal purchases and take vacations costing nearly $100,000, including family trips to Cuba, meals at high end restaurants, and frequent gatherings at a private men’s social club in California, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced today.
According to the complaint, filed today in Suffolk Superior Court, Evan Dobelle, who served as WSU president from January 2008 until his resignation in November 2013, knowingly submitted to WSU false claims for payment of personal expenses totaling at least $59,000. The complaint also alleges Dobelle made at least $39,000 worth of travel requests, falsely stating those trips were for official university business. These actions are in violation of the state’s False Claims Act, Dobelle’s employment contract, applicable university policies, and the state’s conflict of interest law.
“We allege the former president of this university blatantly misused public funds for trips that were nothing but weeklong vacations with family and friends,” AG Coakley said. “This pattern of inappropriately spending state money is unacceptable, as leaders of public schools should be enforcing their policies instead of knowingly violating them for their own personal benefit.”
The AG’s Office began its investigation into allegations of improper spending by Dobelle in the fall of 2013, following an initial report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) regarding Dobelle’s improper spending of WSU’s funds. Review of relevant credit card statements and records revealed Dobelle made hundreds of personal purchases using university credit cards during his six-year tenure. Those purchases included hotel stays, meals, and plane tickets for himself and his family members, at times totaling thousands of dollars per month.
While Dobelle appears to have reimbursed expenses identified as personal in nature, he often submitted his reimbursements months after he had made the purchase, in some instances using backdated checks to make the repayments appear timely. The complaint alleges Dobelle knew that WSU policies expressly prohibited this conduct and received several reminders from staff to restrict his use of WSU credit cards to University-related expenses.
The complaint also alleges that Dobelle submitted travel requests falsely stating at least 16 university-arranged and paid trips that cost the university more than $39,000 were for official university business, including fundraising, alumni relations, and conferences, when in fact they were primarily personal in nature. Those include a February 2012 trip to Cuba with his wife and personal friends that cost the University more than $3,640, and multiple trips to California to attend events at the Bohemian Grove, a private men’s social club in Monte Rio, of which Dobelle is a member.
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The AG’s lawsuit against Dobelle seeks damages, civil penalties, costs and attorney’s fees associated with the AG’s ongoing investigation, and the costs of the OIG’s investigation. The AG’s Office will continue to review the OIG’s recent detailed report. Today’s lawsuit does not foreclose the potential for additional action.
This matter is being handled by Julia Bell Andrus, Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division, Gillian Feiner, Managing Attorney for False Claims in the Consumer Protection Division, Krista Roche, Paralegal in the Consumer Protection Division, and James O’Hara of the AG’s Investigations Division.
Below is a statement from Debelle’s lawyer, Ross Garber, regarding the lawsuit:
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.