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Former UH president Dobelle sought deal to step down in Mass.

By Andrea Estes & Scott Allen

New York Times News Service

LAST UPDATED: 04:57 p.m. HST, Oct 25, 2013

Evan Dobelle would have stepped down as president of Westfield State University last week if trustees had agreed to let him take a paid sabbatical and return as a tenured professor in the fall, say several people briefed on the private negotiations.

But the trustees, alarmed at Dobelle's free-spending and increasingly combative public remarks, placed him on paid leave instead, even making him turn in the keys to his university car at the end of the marathon Oct. 16 trustees meeting.

Now Dobelle, a former president of the University of Hawaii system who resigned in 2004 after facing similar allegations, has filed a federal lawsuit charging that trustees and the state's top higher education official have conspired to destroy his reputation, raising the stakes in a three-month-long leadership crisis that has rocked the state university. Lawyers hired by the trustees are already investigating Dobelle's spending habits with plans to report their findings by Nov. 25.

"At age 68, Dr. Dobelle's long-celebrated career has been swiftly, unjustly, and perhaps irreparably damaged," reads Dobelle's complaint, filed Thursday, which alleges that the investigation of his spending is part of a smear campaign to drive him from power at the 5,400-student university near Springfield.

Dobelle's troubles at Westfield are similar to his controversial tenure at UH from 2001 to 2004. UH regents unanimously voted to fire him in 2004 amid charges of lavish spending, dishonesty and wasting university resources.

Dobelle said he was a victim of a vendetta by Hawaii Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, and he fought back with lawyers.

He threatened to sue UH for wrongful termination and the regents reached a settlement and Dobelle resigned.

Dobelle, who is described as a visionary five times in his latest lawsuit, blamed much of his trouble on Jack Flynn, a senior State Police official who became chairman of the trustees in July 2012.

Since then, Dobelle and his publicist say, Flynn has been out to undermine Dobelle so that he could turn Westfield State into a "diploma mill" for state troopers.

"Flynn's mission of attacking Dr. Dobelle took place without regard to rules or laws specifically designed to avoid these types of cowboy tactics," says the complaint. Dobelle contended the investigation of his business expenses was just part of a "guerrilla war for control of the university."

Flynn did not respond to requests for comment, but he has denied any conspiracy against Dobelle. Westfield State officials have said there is no evidence to support Dobelle's contention that the school was being turned into a diploma mill.

Flynn did hire an accounting firm to review Dobelle's use of credit cards last year, including a $200,000 tab on one university-related card, without seeking approval of the 11-member board. But Flynn has said he was trying to handle the charges quietly because they were embarrassing.

A spokeswoman for Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, who is named as a defendant, said she had not seen the lawsuit, "but it appears to be yet another distraction from the issue of whether state funds were used inappropriately, which is the only issue that matters here."

Freeland froze some state funding to Westfield State earlier this month, out of concern about Dobelle's leadership.

For a time, it looked as if the two sides might avoid further public blood-letting during the closed-door trustees meeting last week.

Trustees talked for hours with Dobelle and his lawyer in hope of reaching a settlement under which Dobelle would depart. At least some in attendance said afterward that the two sides appeared to be making progress.

"There was an effort to resolve it," said one person familiar with the negotiations. Trustees "talked about saying the hell with it and just give" Dobelle a deal that would allow him to walk away with no finding of wrongdoing.

Dobelle wanted an immediate sabbatical from his job as president, during which he would be paid at his presidential salary of $240,920 a year. He would eventually return as a tenured professor, probably at a salary of more than $100,000 a year.

Dobelle also wanted the university to pay his legal bills, already more than $100,000, from his fight with trustees. He also wanted the trustees to stop their investigations.

In the end, the trustees rejected Dobelle's proposal because they thought it would be seen as rewarding bad behavior, say the people briefed on the meeting.

"You get a reward for doing a good job, not bankrupting a place," said Edward Marth, chairman of the board of the Westfield State College Foundation, the school's fund-raising arm.

Instead, after a long meeting with no break for lunch or dinner, the trustees placed Dobelle on paid leave while a law firm reviews the allegations against him.

Several people briefed on the inquiry say they expect it to lead to Dobelle's departure.

The trustees asked for the keys to his Toyota Highlander, which the school had given him when he was hired in 2007. The trustees also took back his university cellphone and directed Dobelle not to contact university personnel.

"You don't think it's personal? How many times does the chairman of the board of a college ask a president to turn in his car keys?" said Dobelle's publicist, George Regan.

Dobelle was looking for a "pittance," especially compared to the multimillion-dollar payout Freeland received when he left his job as president of Northeastern University in 2006, Regan said.

It has been a steep fall for Dobelle, who at an August board meeting appeared to have the backing of most of the school's 11 trustees.

But Dobelle's actions in the past two months -- including verbal attacks against Flynn, Freeland, and Governor Deval Patrick -- helped galvanize the board, which voted unanimously to place Dobelle on leave.

In fact, it was Judge Terry Craven, formerly one of his staunchest supporters, who made the motion, said an official briefed on the trustees' meeting.

Some trustees may also have been persuaded by the answers Dobelle gave to intense questioning by Betsy Scheibel, a trustee who formerly served as district attorney in Hampshire and Franklin counties, the official said.

She questioned Dobelle for more than an hour, and Dobelle's answers only solidified the vote against him, the official said.

Dobelle's suit, filed in US District Court in Springfield, demands unspecified damages from Freeland and Flynn, as well as trustees Kevin Queenin and Scheibel and the accounting firm that did the original review of Dobelle's spending, O'Connor & Drew of Braintree.

"The media frenzy that has developed as a result of the defendants' actions has harmed severely Dr. Dobelle's reputation, such that it will likely be impossible for him to find comparable work," reads the complaint. "Indeed, the actions of the individual defendants set forth above have stigmatized Dr. Dobelle, causing him to be the object of scorn and ridicule."

Aside from the lawsuit, Dobelle's bargaining power appears to be limited. Under his employment agreement, the trustees can terminate him -- and pay him nothing -- if they find he failed to follow "applicable policies or procedures governing the use and management of public moneys and trust funds."

Both O'Connor & Drew and state Inspector General Glenn Cunha have found that Dobelle repeatedly violated university policy by charging personal expenses on school credit cards. Last week Attorney General Martha Coakley launched an investigation to determine whether Dobelle made any claims, in violation of the state's false claims law, to justify his expenses.

Freeland met Wednesday with Elizabeth Preston, the school's acting president, and is expected to approve her appointment as interim president for the rest of the school year.

After the meeting, Freeland said the state has released more than $220,000 in grant money that he had previously ordered withheld.

The state is still holding back $2 million in funding for a new science center.

If the trustees had agreed to give Dobelle a faculty position and a sabbatical, they would have met with resistance from the faculty union, whose contract expressly bars any president of the school from joining the faculty after leaving the job.

"We would have gone to the labor relations board to prevent it," said Buzz Hoagland, head of the Massachusetts State College Association, the union that represents the school's teachers and librarians. The union gave Dobelle a vote of no confidence last week.

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pgkemp wrote:
no words can describe this clown........
on October 25,2013 | 01:21PM
joseph007 wrote:
his lawyer will say "he's just misunderstood". what a crook.
on October 26,2013 | 09:09AM
CriticalReader wrote:
Does Dobelle have some sort of tenure rights at UH?
on October 25,2013 | 01:36PM
Sunny wrote:
I believe he was paid his full salary by UH to complete some sort of research work after he was terminated but did it while out of state seeking another job. I don't think the work he was required to do was satisfactorily completed but UH probably didn't care and was more concerned to be rid of him.
on October 25,2013 | 02:00PM
Rickyboy wrote:
Hope UH Regents see the errors of their questionable decisions and learn from it. Costing lots of money to UH.
on October 25,2013 | 01:47PM
Solara wrote:
Mass. knew of his reputation here and yet they're surprised by his repeat performance?!
on October 25,2013 | 01:57PM
markat wrote:
At least they have the cajones to stand up to his extortion threats and they aren't just rolling over like the UH regents did. Twice.
on October 25,2013 | 04:00PM
xxNOTxx wrote:
I totally agree--hopefully the UH regents will start to stand up and hold their ground to persons and/or situations that require it and not allow UH to once again become the prey.
on October 25,2013 | 05:14PM
Sunny wrote:
Does anyone know where I can get an Evan Dobelle mask for Halloween?
on October 25,2013 | 02:02PM
allie wrote:
My professor tells me he had a mistress he brought here with him from Connecticut. He was convinced he was quite a woman's man. giggle....massive ego. Ludicrous man that cost Hawaii a great deal.
on October 25,2013 | 02:17PM
grantos wrote:
how does that relate to a Halloween mask?
on October 25,2013 | 03:28PM
veelc wrote:
White face paint, red rubber nose and an orange wig makes this goof a dead ringer for "Bozo" the clown...
on October 25,2013 | 06:03PM
glam99 wrote:
Dobelle, the one trick pony at it again.
on October 25,2013 | 02:19PM
nitpikker wrote:
dobelle must have been following what greedwood managed to finagle out of the u.h. regents! comp. pakage sounds eerily similar!
on October 25,2013 | 03:03PM
RandolphW wrote:
Dobelle is obviously a bum.
on October 25,2013 | 03:27PM
culi wrote:
UH should rehire him again so the regents could really show their true stupidity.
on October 25,2013 | 03:44PM
false wrote:
That is exactly Dobell's MO - take em all for what he can get and then more.
on October 25,2013 | 04:12PM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Too funny! Here is a better idea Westfield - tell Dobelle to go away or you will file a criminal complaint against him. See if he has the stones for it.
on October 25,2013 | 04:27PM
iwanaknow wrote:
Every crook should take a page from this bigger crook and learn well?
on October 25,2013 | 04:38PM
808comp wrote:
This guy knows how to make money.
on October 25,2013 | 07:17PM
krusha wrote:
Looks like they fell for Dobelle's trap instead of paying him off like UH did. That guy is like a con artist and a very good one at that...
on October 26,2013 | 01:59AM
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