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Ex-UH president under scrutiny again

Evan S. Dobelle's expenses draw fire at his current Massachusetts college post

By Andrea Estes and Scott Allen

Boston Globe

POSTED:


WESTFIELD, Mass. » The boosters at Westfield State University wanted to support their ambitious new president in his quest to make the former teachers college into an educational powerhouse. So the school's private foundation gave Evan S. Dobelle — former president of the University of Hawaii — a credit card to pay what were meant to be "generally small amounts" for fundraising expenses, such as meals with donors.

Then, in the fall of 2008, they started getting Dobelle's bills: $8,000 for a four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, $883 from the upscale clothing store Louis Boston, $10,000 for tickets to shows at Tanglewood, more than $4,000 for limousine rides.

By the time the Westfield State College Foundation closed Dobelle's credit card two years later, rec­ords show he had run up more than $200,000 in credit card charges to the foundation, a private group that raises money for scholarships and educational programs. Dobelle also agreed to repay more than $20,000 in expenditures he originally charged to the foundation.

But Dobelle's free spending continued, university rec­ords show. He started racking up charges on his executive assistant's university credit card, incurring thousands in expenses in the name of Nanci Salvidio, including personal items such as $875 for a 2011 stay at a five-star London hotel that wasn't repaid for more than a year, according to an expense report.

Now the spending of Dobelle, a self-described visionary who compared himself to such luminaries as Apple founder Steve Jobs and education reformer Horace Mann, may be catching up to him. University trustees are about to release a review of Dobelle's spending that was triggered by an anonymous leak of his spending reports. The state inspector general as well as the attorney general have launched investigations, too, bringing tension — and suspicions — to the usual quiet of a college campus in summer.

Dobelle agreed to a settlement to leave UH in 2004 under a cloud of questions about his travel expenses and other spending from his expense account at the UH Foundation.

To Dobelle, a former Pittsfield, Mass., mayor, he's a victim of his own success. He says he's made Westfield State "the hottest college in New England," launching a $170 million building program, and some people are fixating on small mistakes to trip him up — like the times he accidentally used the university credit card for personal expenses, mistaking it for one of his own.

"I'm a change agent. You know you're going to take a hit," said Dobelle, who is paid $240,920 to oversee the 5,400-student university about 10 miles west of Springfield.

He said all the bills can be explained, including the stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, where he was leading a mission to boost Westfield State's international stature. He said the Far East tour, which ran up $145,000 in bills for the 10-person delegation, yielded connections that have helped Westfield attract a small number of Asian students and sent Westfield students to study in Asia.

Dobelle said the 76 out-of-state trips he has taken in his 68 months as president were aimed at improving the lives of Westfield students, many of them "throwaway kids," as he put it, with few advantages. He said he used a $938 round-trip limo ride to New York City in December 2009 to treat three journalism students like "queens for a day," taking them to see CBS News, meet Katie Couric and dine at Stage Deli and 21 Club.

"When I spend money, that's what I'm doing. I do things for kids," said Dobelle, who acknowledged that he may have inadvertently charged personal expenses to the school or the foundation. "Were there errors? Yes. Were there errors of intent? No."

Dobelle also frequently combined personal and business travel, making his expenses difficult to disentangle. He said he charged the university for a business trip to San Francisco, then went at his own expense to a nearby all-men's retreat, Bohemian Grove, for a vacation. He said he saw no problem with indirectly using university resources to go to a club that excludes women, saying, "I'm not invited to my wife's book club."

But the state's former longtime inspector general said Dobelle's pattern of spending suggests a basic lack of restraint in the use of other people's money, whether from the foundation that provides about $250,000 a year for educational programs or from the university itself. He noted that most Westfield students rely on financial aid to pay for college.

"Administrators like this guy treat themselves like some kind of royalty, and the cost is passed on," said Greg­ory Sullivan, research director of Pioneer Institute and state inspector general for 10 years until 2012.

Some public officials in Hawaii say Westfield State should have known what it was getting when it hired Dobelle. University of Hawaii regents initially fired Dobelle in 2004, saying they had "lost trust" after years of clashes and high spending on everything from renovating the president's mansion to travel. The board rescinded the firing when Dobelle threatened to sue, and Dobelle said it paid him $3.8 million to terminate his 10-year contract, but the ill will lingers.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, a longtime Dobelle critic who asked for an audit of his spending after he took donors to a Janet Jackson concert, said she couldn't believe Westfield State hired Dobelle. "You really have to do your homework. With the Internet and computers, there's really no excuse."

But Thomas Foley, chairman of the Westfield State board of trustees at the time Dobelle was hired, said board members dismissed the Hawaii controversy because the regents reversed course on the firing and paid Dobelle a large settlement. "He was the best candidate who was in front of us at that time," Foley said in an interview. "People in Hawaii can say what they want. Everyone can do Monday morning quarterbacking."

From the start, however, it was clear Dobelle's vision would be expensive. He saw a school that was too parochial — 93 percent of students are from Massachusetts, and the school had few international connections — and didn't even get along with its host community.

"We had a serious town-gown" issue, said Dobelle. "We were separated by a mile, but it might as well have been 100 miles."

So Dobelle set out to solve both problems, knowing it would cost millions. To bring the town of Westfield closer to the college, he launched a free celebrity speakers series ranging from cultural icons like Gloria Steinem and Dr. Ruth to stars of yesterday like Bowzer of the 1950s-style band Sha Na Na. The events drew more than 16,000 people, but they were not cheap, costing the foundation more than $500,000 in speakers' fees, accommodations and other expenses in 2009 and 2010 alone, rec­ords show.

Dobelle said he took the Westfield brand international, authorizing about $250,000 in foreign travel by Westfield State officials over the last few years.

Dobelle spent more on the 2008 Asia trip alone than the $92,000 that Gov. Deval Patrick spent to take two dozen officials on a trade mission to Britain and Israel in 2011. But Dobelle said the only unusually expensive item was the luxury hotel bill in Bangkok, and there was a reason for it: The consultant who helped plan the trip said that Thai officials wouldn't take Westfield State seriously if they didn't put on a good show.

"She would say, ‘Who will come and listen to Westfield State when they only have time for Cor­nell? You better set yourself up in a way to show a certain degree of prominence and respect to them,'" recalled Dobelle. "So, fine, that's what we did."

But the combined effects of Dobelle's extensive travel bills — he charged $118,000 of the Asia trip to the foundation — and the costs of the speakers series left the foundation unable to pay its bills, requiring a $425,000 loan from the university in 2010. However, because the foundation is a separate organization from Westfield State, the depth of its problems was unknown even to university board members.

Moreover, board rec­ords show, foundation officials had a recurring problem with Dobelle not paying back clearly personal expenses — such as travel costs for his wife or son — for weeks, months or even longer.

Dobelle said he voluntarily gave up his foundation credit card in late 2010 because both he and the clerical staff kept making mistakes about which bills were personal — and had to be repaid — and which were business. "I got tired of human error," Dobelle said. "I said, ‘Here is the foundation card and the college credit card. I'm tired of this.'"

But foundation rec­ords paint a different picture: On Sept. 21, 2010, Sheridan Carey, then chairman of the foundation board, wrote a letter to Dobelle and three other administrators who had foundation cards, saying that "it is necessary to immediately halt credit card expenses" in order to "ensure the financial viability of the foundation."

Dobelle said that after he turned in his credit cards, he was determined to pay expenses personally and then seek reimbursement. But he soon started charging expenses to the university credit card of Nanci Sal­vi­dio, his former executive assistant, who is now associate vice president.

By mid-2011 Dobelle was charging thousands of dollars in business travel along with other costly items such as $429 for a night at the Hyatt Harborside in Boston and $978 for a group luncheon at the Red Lion Inn in West Stockbridge.

In an interview, Dobelle struggled to explain why he used Sal­vi­dio's card even after he had gotten another university credit card of his own in 2011.

"There is no question this is a confusing story. I'm not sure I can explain it," said Dobelle. "The reality is … there was no intent to do anything wrong. Was it done messily? No question. Was everything reimbursed? Yes. Has everything been straightened out? Yes."

Now, Dobelle said, the university's reimbursement policy requires full docu­­­men­tation of every expenditure.

However, the policy hasn't stopped him from charging luxury items to the Westfield State Foundation. When Dobelle's old friend, retired George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg, spoke at a commencement for a small group of graduate students in 2012, Dobelle put him up at the luxurious Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, where rooms run from about $900 to $2,000 a night.

Dobelle defends the accommodations, noting that Trachtenberg didn't ask for a speaker's fee. Plus, he said, he was building Westfield's reputation by putting his prominent guest in such a splendid hotel.

The chairman of the foundation, Robert A. Johnson, resigned in July, writing to his colleagues that the foundation has "a culture with a values-set that is wholly incompatible with mine. … It is my firm belief that, given the current climate, success is not only unlikely; it is nearly impossible."






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droid wrote:
To this day, Evan Dobelle has failed to be held accountable for starting a film school without any means to pay for the quality required to compete against other universities with film schools. Dobelle’s “visions” tend to bankrupt his boosters before other more committed administrators can clean up his mess and pick up the slack.
on August 20,2013 | 02:02AM
allie wrote:
Dobelle is the classic phony con man who struts around and fools the masses. He was fired from colleges before coming out here and Dan Inouye forced the UH to hire him. Really sad the money and time wasted on this guy. It shows how easily people can be fooled though.
on August 20,2013 | 07:29AM
Mythman wrote:
He was a mayor before - good training for being a con man...
on August 20,2013 | 08:57AM
DAGR81 wrote:
Look who's calling the kettle black.
on August 20,2013 | 10:38PM
MalamaKaAina wrote:
Nothing new here folks, move along.
on August 20,2013 | 02:32AM
what wrote:
Quote: "a basic lack of restraint in the use of other people's money" Hey, he sounds like a Democrat spending taxpayer money.
on August 20,2013 | 03:36AM
Slow wrote:
Probbly Obama's fault, yeah?
on August 20,2013 | 07:42PM
toomuchpilikia wrote:
"Ditto's to that"!
on August 20,2013 | 03:37AM
Shh wrote:
Yes...let's do that. No sense commenting here. The guy not at UH anymore anyway.
on August 20,2013 | 07:26AM
palani wrote:
"...Dobelle, a self-described visionary who compared himself to such luminaries as Apple founder Steve Jobs..."

Yikes! Sounds a bit megalomaniacal.


on August 20,2013 | 05:14AM
palani wrote:
Great. I googled "Westfield State University" and now I have its annoying advertising pop-ups on every screen I open.
on August 20,2013 | 05:21AM
allie wrote:
yup..nothing school
on August 20,2013 | 07:30AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Delete those cookies on your browser big guy!
on August 20,2013 | 10:04AM
false wrote:
The Dobelle curse.
on August 20,2013 | 11:33AM
Makapuu4 wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on August 20,2013 | 06:22AM
Anonymous wrote:
Zing!!!
on August 20,2013 | 03:06PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
A legend in his own mind.
on August 20,2013 | 07:10AM
allie wrote:
true..but he knows if he says it, fools will believe it.
on August 20,2013 | 07:30AM
awahana wrote:
That guy's got COJONES!
Prison will LOVE him!
on August 20,2013 | 05:51AM
yhls wrote:
Actually, it reflects on the incompetency of the UH Board of Regents. All of the regents are political appointees, many of whom have no administrative, executive and/or educational background. They repeatedly hire the wrong people for excessive amounts of money and then watch as their selections self destruct, further lowering the reputation of our university. And then when the time comes and they've done enough damage, the board of regents PAYS them to go away. Brilliant.
on August 20,2013 | 05:58AM
allie wrote:
true..but I understand he was not the choice of the search committee. Inouye forced this guy on us as a favor to Dems. Dobelle was a fund raiser for Dems and said he was owed. Inouye had a very dark side folks.
on August 20,2013 | 07:31AM
palani wrote:
Please add those topics to that Laie Beach primer you promised me, allie.
on August 20,2013 | 09:10AM
allie wrote:
Reporting what my profs whisper in my ear. :)
on August 20,2013 | 03:08PM
silvangold wrote:
stop downing Dan Inouye. You NEVER knew him, he is Hawaii's son. people here take offense when you as a person not belonging to Hawaii at all bad mouth him. give it a rest. you DON"T understand things that you always say you do. just go back to the mandans.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
on August 20,2013 | 10:59AM
dsl wrote:
speak for yourself. I don't take offense...
on August 20,2013 | 01:22PM
allie wrote:
THE DAY IS coming when a more balanced account of Dan will be possible. Lot of good, lot of bad.
on August 20,2013 | 03:10PM
Venus1 wrote:
Any one in as long as D I makes mistakes!!! Dan is loved by most Hawaians!! He was a hero!! I don 't know who you are!!! Maybe someday we will learn who makes 'trashing ' a hobby!!!
on August 20,2013 | 06:47PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Clever photo choice. Of all the Dobelle photos over the years, the Star Ad chose one with Aiona and Lingle in it to attach to a negative story about him in another state and another time.
on August 20,2013 | 06:40AM
ltj wrote:
You are right on the mark with that comment about the photo. What a pathetic attempt by these Star Advertiser writers.
on August 20,2013 | 07:03AM
palani wrote:
Biased? What do you mean, we're not biased! Everyone in our newsroom feels the same way, so we're just reporting the facts (as we see them).
on August 20,2013 | 08:52AM
EwaWarrior wrote:
Ah, the Thurston Twigg-Smith rationalization!!!!!
on August 20,2013 | 10:34AM
allie wrote:
explain...
on August 20,2013 | 03:10PM
EwaWarrior wrote:
Yeah, I wondered about that too!
on August 20,2013 | 10:33AM
Slow wrote:
SA devotes more attention to photo selection than, say, reporting. Although unfortunately effective, running slanted photos has become the norm for SA. If Civil Beat wasn't so expensive. OK, I know. Cough up the dough and get quality investigative journalism.
on August 20,2013 | 07:54PM
Tutu543 wrote:
Should have been a photo of Walter Dods with Dobelle.
on August 21,2013 | 02:43PM
McCully wrote:
Tag you're it Westfield!!!
on August 20,2013 | 06:55AM
palani wrote:
Good one.
on August 20,2013 | 08:52AM
loquaciousone wrote:
You get what you pay for...
on August 20,2013 | 07:01AM
DRD wrote:
We need to heed the lessons learned from the Dobelle disaster as well from UH's Greenwood, and to acknowledge how dismal a record the University has had in selecting its most important administrator. The damage done to the University has been massive, in dollars wasted, in public trust, and in faculty and student morale. But while the bad taste from UH leadership will linger for years to come, diluting the positive academic and research progress that continues to occur, robbing programs and infrastructure from benefiting from lost dollars wasted by mismanagement and golden parachutes, the public is patiently awaiting with trepidation the choice of the next president of the University........
on August 20,2013 | 07:02AM
allie wrote:
agree..and Sen. Kim was right about Dobelle from the start
on August 20,2013 | 07:32AM
palani wrote:
Please add to primer.
on August 20,2013 | 09:11AM
HAWAII_BOY_008 wrote:
Dobelle's long messy trail began in SF when he was at the helm of SF City College.... Dobelle's topsy-turvy move was the beginning of a transformation at City College, a seed that today's administrators say helped cultivate, 22 years later, the field of managerial and financial troubles that now threatens California's largest public school with the loss of accreditation and possible closure. By the time the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges issued its sharply worded report in July giving City College until March 15 to fix its problems - including too few administrators - a psychology professor had risen through the ranks to become chancellor himself, committed to shielding the college from layoffs and course cuts even as the economy and his budget crumbled around him. more..... http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/SF-City-College-money-woes-have-long-history-3968316.php
on August 20,2013 | 07:28AM
allie wrote:
spot on..I read that in Chronicle of Higher Education. Really amazing how Doorbell winds up here at such a huge salary. Someone ought to research the dark story..the real back story.
on August 20,2013 | 03:12PM
Anonymous wrote:
I used to be an avid supporter of U.H. but ever since the Greenwood escapades and the Dobell Dough boy,I dont support any of the programs anymore . Even my annual donation to "Na Koa" I dont support because of these idiots with who are given just too much autonomy and power and just showed no respect to the people who actually pay taxes for their high wages and perks that they received. I despise U.H. and I dont feel any emotions to any of their efforts..ALL PAU
on August 20,2013 | 07:32AM
Wonderful_World wrote:
Ditto! I too no longer donate any money. Reading about all of their incompetencies just makes me so disgusted.
on August 20,2013 | 08:18AM
allie wrote:
many feel as you do...
on August 20,2013 | 03:12PM
Wonderful_World wrote:
"When I spend money, that's what I'm doing. I do things for kids"--uh-h-h yeah, taking their money! He is such a loser! Go retire & spend your OWN money!
on August 20,2013 | 08:13AM
BigOpu wrote:
I could care less what he does, as long as he's not doing it at UH's expense anymore. Sucks to be you Westfield.
on August 20,2013 | 08:33AM
Macadamiamac wrote:
Maybe we could get the Chinese to hire him, help to reverse the balance of payments...
on August 20,2013 | 08:50AM
EwaWarrior wrote:
Good one!
on August 20,2013 | 10:36AM
hilofokes wrote:
can't blame dobelle or UH's most recently distinguishable soon to be former prez mrc. ... why certain institutions fail or can only be who they are? inability or unwillingness to evaluate with appropriate criteria and knowledgeable evaluators.
on August 20,2013 | 10:03AM
EwaWarrior wrote:
Wow!! Didn't think another University could make UH look smart!!! Maybe they can hire MRC Greenwood????
on August 20,2013 | 10:31AM
false wrote:
The Regents at Westfield makes our UH reagents look like a Mensa group.
on August 20,2013 | 11:36AM
allie wrote:
giggle..so true. Dobelle saw how weak-kneed and stupid they were and moved in for the easy kill.
on August 20,2013 | 03:13PM
islandboy1562 wrote:
Our loss was Westfield's College gain -LOL Yes he professes to be a change agent but he himself can't change his ways!
on August 20,2013 | 11:17AM
false wrote:
Evan Ponzi Dope Bell is at it again. This school was asking for it and they sure got it. The guy is a real scammer he gives everyone his lip service and somehow they believe him. They better run him out of town like Hawaii did and fast.
on August 20,2013 | 11:31AM
Ripoff wrote:
aaaaand then there was M.R.C....smh...
on August 20,2013 | 12:24PM
Bully wrote:
Good for Westfield State University, UH fired the guy for his free spending and you hire him knowing what he did at UH. And then he does he same thing at your school. Are you surprised?
on August 20,2013 | 02:06PM
allie wrote:
no..Doorbell did it to 4 colleges and they all kept hiring him at enormous salaries...go figure...
on August 20,2013 | 03:13PM
Anonymous wrote:
Dobelle = Disgusting, no question. He can try to spin it any way he wants (Oh, it's all for the University and the kids! Bull!), but the man is a narcissist. That being said, Hawaii people have no business pointing and saying "We told you so!" Reversing the decision to fire Dobelle was, first of all, cowardly. Second, our own track record of hiring Presidents with questionable credentials is embarrassing.
on August 20,2013 | 03:05PM
allie wrote:
yup and he has a lot of GF's on the side I am told...put one on the payroll at UH I heard..yuck!
on August 20,2013 | 03:14PM
naruroa wrote:
For Hawaii officials to say that Westfield should have known what they were getting into is a bit rich--exactly the same complaint could be leveled at Hawaii, since Dobelle's previous problems at City College of San Francisco were well known. By the same token, it was pretty obvious that Kenneth ("Rigor") Mortimer would be a less than a stellar UH president, given his prior history at Penn State. The real problem here is university administrators and boards of regents, who ignore the opinions of their own faculty and instead sign up expensive head hunting firms to fill senior positions. The head hunters seldom bother to look back beyond a candidate's last job. The forgotten faculty, however, know where all the skeletons are hidden.
on August 20,2013 | 03:06PM
allie wrote:
agree..but just know Inouye was the force for hiring him..not the search committee.
on August 20,2013 | 03:15PM
Venus1 wrote:
Prove it!!!
on August 20,2013 | 06:51PM
HiNaihe808 wrote:
Evan Dobelle needs his head checked. This creepy guy has stolen enough from other people.
on August 20,2013 | 06:39PM
Venus1 wrote:
Agree!!
on August 20,2013 | 07:13PM
uh4eva wrote:
Jail time might help correct the reckless behavior with other peoples money. He is a criminal period.
on August 20,2013 | 07:00PM
kuewa wrote:
Unlike his successor, who was investigated by UC before she was hired at UH.
on August 20,2013 | 08:26PM
nitpikker wrote:
hah! board of rejects working their magic on another unsuspecting college. settling under threat of lawsuit. or rather..giving in under threat of lawsuit. seems like they keep picking the same people for the board....or the same TYPE of people.
on August 20,2013 | 11:30PM
LMO wrote:
This guy is a con man. Nothing more, nothing less.
on August 24,2013 | 04:28AM
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