WESTFIELD — Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle repeatedly violated school travel and credit card policies, improperly charging hefty expenses for himself and his family to the university and sometimes using his assistant’s card, according to a long-awaited review of his spending habits.
A closer look at the review, released to the public late Thursday night after a lengthy critique by Dobelle, shows that accountants found scores of questionable expenses and more than $100,000 for personal charges on three official credit cards over the past five years.
Though that money apparently was repaid—sometimes a year or more after the fact—the accounting firm O’Connor and Drew said Dobelle shouldn’t have made the charges in the first place. Moreover, recordkeeping in general was so skimpy, the accountants couldn’t be sure of their purpose.
“As far as I know, everything was paid back,” said O’Connor and Drew principal David DiIulis, who reviewed hundreds of thousands in Dobelle’s credit card expenditures. “It’s difficult with some of these expenses. You can’t really tell. I can only trust it’s a business expense.”
The questions about Dobelle’s expenses, including a $140,000 trip to Asia by Dobelle and a Westfield State delegation, have already prompted one large donor to cancel plans to donate $100,000 and brought calls from Governor Deval Patrick and others for a full accounting of Dobelle’s spending.
Dobelle, speaking Thursday night in a university board room packed with students, supporters, and others who praised his “visionary” leadership, rejected the report entirely, calling it “defaming” and “illegal” because the entire board of trustees never approved the hiring of O’Connor and Drew.
Dobelle declined to address the questionable expenditures cited in the report as he has for months: the report’s release was delayed for five months while the accounting firm waited for a response from Dobelle that never came.
Dobelle said he felt duty-bound not to provide a written response to a review that he regarded as invalid. “I felt a responsibility to adhere to . . . the laws of the Commonwealth,” Dobelle said. “I’m not going to participate in something that shuts out the majority of the board members and is illegal.”
Dobelle said he wanted to meet with the accountants, but DiIulis said that would not have been right since Dobelle was their main focus. “Most of the credit card and travel violations pertained to Dr. Dobelle. We preferred to have any correspondence in writing,” DiIulis said.
The review, released after the board meeting Thursday when reporters had little time to read it before filing their stories, cited numerous examples in which Dobelle made charges that violated university policy or engaged in questionable practices:
* Dobelle charged his wife and son’s airfare on university credit cards, sometimes using a credit card belonging to his assistant, Nanci Salvidio.
* Several times, Dobelle used official credit cards to pay for personal travel, but did not put in for vacation or leave time on those days. Instead, he put in for per diem expenses as though he was working.
* Dobelle took a personal trip to London in June 2011 and billed the university. After O’Connor and Drew began their review in late 2012, Dobelle reimbursed the university for the personal trip.
* When Dobelle went to London, he took an official side trip to Vienna, putting the charges on his assistant Salvidio’s credit card.
* During January 2011, Dobelle went to San Francisco and charged the university for a room at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco for $553 a night.
* On Sept 18, 2012, Dobelle charged the university one night at the Hilton Times Square in New York for $543, an amount O’Connor and Drew suggested was excessive.
But Dobelle insisted that all the problems described by the accountants were in the past and launched a spirited defense of his five-year tenure at the college. He said that much of the spending detailed in the report had brought an enormous return to the school. His controversial trip to China, he said, led to an increase in international students coming to Westfield State.
“I’m deeply proud of what our university has accomplished,” he said. “I was hired by Westfield State to be an agent of change . . . to take us to the next level,” he added. “We have done exactly that.”
Members of the board of trustees have had the report for some time, but, at the meeting, several members seemed most concerned with questioning the legitimacy of the $58,000 review, which was authorized by board chairman Jack Flynn. The full 11-member board never approved the review, although they agreed to accept the report on Thursday night.
“Our bylaws do have some language that no single member can act on behalf of the board,” said trustee Terry Craven. “I’m concerned that this board remain above reproach.”
Dobelle went further, arguing that the entire review was invalid, accusing Flynn and two other board leaders of violating the open meeting law at least five times during its preparation.
He said the accountants provide no context for why he spent the money. And, he added, a university lawyer told him their report was “not a professional product because of syntax, use of cliches,” and excessive opinions.
Several members of the board praised Dobelle, saying his biggest mistake was not telling his story of accomplishment sooner.
“I’ve noticed and admired the visionary qualities [of Dr. Dobelle],” said Terrell M. Hill, a 1992 Westfield State alumnus and board member. “When you’re a visionary and you try to do something great and meaningful, you’re going to have detractors.”
“You’re my hero,” responded Dobelle, referring to Hill’s work as the principal of a high school in Connecticut.
Board chairman Flynn acknowledged Dobelle’s accomplishments, but added that the board must still grapple with the spending controversy and the fallout it has wrought, including Elizabeth Grady chief executive John P. Walsh’s decision to withhold a planned $100,000 grant.
“There’s some responsibility here to clean things up,” Flynn said. “It doesn’t detract from the good things that have been accomplished here, but it doesn’t excuse it. This is going to take time. ... I’m having a hard time figuring out how we get through it.”
Flynn acknowledged that the executive committee discussed the review privately, but he said they had good reason.
“The executive committee spent a lot of time working on this issue and trying to resolve it. We understood quite candidly that this was a bit of an embarrassment both to the university and the people mentioned in the documents. My intent was to try to resolve this informally.”
But Flynn failed to convince the other trustees to restrict Dobelle’s expenses while the attorney general and inspector general are conducting investigations. Flynn withdrew a motion to place a moratorium on air travel by Dobelle and other administrators until the spending matter was resolved after it became clear it would not pass.Scott Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.