BOSTON – The state is suing the former president of Westfield State University over allegations he misused nearly $100,000 in state funds, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced on Thursday.
Dobelle, elected Pittsfield's mayor twice before the age of 30, has been accused of using 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.
According to the complaint, filed Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court, 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, according to the attorney general.
"We allege the former president of this university blatantly misused public funds for trips that were nothing but weeklong vacations with family and friends," 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."
Dobelle faced accusations of cronyism and lavish spending as president of the University of Hawaii. He was fired for "for cause" by the board of regents in 2004 and later settled with the university for $1.6 million. He had earlier been president of Trinity College in Connecticut and U.S. Chief of Protocol for the Carter administration, among other high-ranking positions.
The Coakleys' 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 regarding Dobelle's alleged 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, according to the complaint. The complaint also 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 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.
The AG's lawsuit against Dobelle seeks damages, civil penalties, costs and attorney's fees associated with the ongoing investigation, and the costs of the inspector general's investigation. The AG's office will continue to review the inspector general's recent detailed report. Thursday's lawsuit does not foreclose the potential for additional action.
This matter is being handled by the Consumer Protection Division's Julia Bell Andrus, assistant attorney general, Gillian Feiner, managing attorney for false claims, and Krista Roche, paralegal, and James O'Hara of the Investigations Division.
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