Westfield State University trustees are trying to call a special meeting to consider suspending embattled president Evan Dobelle, who is facing intense criticism for his lavish spending and violations of university credit card policies — including a new letter from state officials threatening to intervene in the school’s finances.
Kevin R. Queenin, the trustee board secretary, has told others that he has four of the six votes he needs to call the meeting — and perhaps suspend Dobelle, a former University of Hawaii president who resigned after questions were raised about his spending of UH Foundation money, with pay until various investigations are done. Numerous school officials say that the controversy surrounding Dobelle’s use of university credit cards for travel, luxury hotels, and personal expenses is creating chaos on campus.
But Dobelle, who has retained a prominent lawyer and a public relations consultant, is going on the offensive, portraying himself as a victim of what he considers a vengeful board chairman, Jack Flynn. Dobelle argues Flynn is trying to derail his attempts to elevate the stature of Westfield State.
“This whole situation is being driven by Mr. Flynn, who is trying to have a revolution at the school,” said George Regan, Dobelle’s new spokesman.
“We really believe Mr. Flynn’s grand scheme is to make the school into a State Police diploma mill. He’s the problem. He’s calling for secret meetings and is using university funds to hire an accounting firm to investigate — without ever getting approval from anyone else on the board,” Regan said.
Dobelle has charged that the investigation into his spending habits was illegal from the start because the accountant who analyzed his credit card records was hired by Flynn and two other trustees rather than the full board.
Dobelle even argues that he may be entitled to whistle-blower protection against retaliation by the board because he spoke out against its “illegal meetings.”
“Those comments are untrue,” replied Flynn, a top official with the State Police who has been wrestling with Dobelle’s spending habits since someone anonymously gave Dobelle’s expense records to university officials.
Flynn has said he hired the accountant from O’Connor & Drew without a board vote because the allegations were embarrassing and he was trying to be discreet.
“I’m extremely disappointed the conversation has reached this level,” said Flynn.
Other Westfield State officials were sharper in their criticism of Dobelle, a self-described “change agent” who has had the $240,920 a year job since 2008.
Edward Marth, chairman of the university’s fund-raising foundation, said the trustees should act “quickly, forthrightly, and severely.”
Added Marth, “If I were in a position to do so, I would fire him.” Marth said he was speaking for himself, not for the foundation board.
The state’s higher education commissioner also increased pressure on Dobelle, challenging him in a letter to respond to various allegations, including a Boston Globe account of a 2013 fund-raising trip to San Francisco in which Dobelle gave trustees the impression he had proposed $500,000 in grants at seven Bay-area foundations when, in reality, Dobelle merely sent a staffer inside their offices to drop off information packets.
Commissioner Richard M. Freeland also called on Dobelle to respond to the findings of the O’Connor & Drew accountant — who cited numerous violations of university policy forbidding the use of university credit cards for personal expenses — and a letter from the state inspector general last week that accused Dobelle of spending public resources “indiscriminately.”
“We are formally requesting you address the findings” by Oct. 3, wrote Freeland. “If you choose not to, we will have no choice but to assume that these very serious findings are true and proceed accordingly,” noting that he has already begun a review of the university’s state funding.
Freeland suggested the state may be forced to take control of the spending of state funds earmarked for the school.
In a separate letter, Freeland chided Westfield State trustees for not taking action on their own. Until now, several trustees have defended Dobelle as a visionary leader who needed to spend money in his quest to improve the school. Some have echoed Dobelle’s assertion that the O’Connor & Drew review of Dobelle’s expenses was invalid because the full board never approved it.
“Serious issues involving the stewardship of public funding and public trust have been raised, and silence and inaction are not appropriate responses,” Freeland wrote.
The public acrimony between Dobelle and Westfield State trustees is strikingly similar to the end of Dobelle’s time as president of the University of Hawaii where the board of regents unanimously voted to fire him in 2004 amid charges of lavish spending, dishonesty, and wasting university resources.
“We have come to the realization that the president no longer has our trust,” said University of Hawaii Board of Regents chairwoman Patricia Lee in revealing the decision. Minutes of the meeting where they decided to fire him reveal that others questioned Dobelle’s honesty, integrity, and competence and one said he “could not take another year of the president’s lies and deceptions.”
But Dobelle — arguing that he was a victim of a vendetta by the Republican governor he had opposed — fought back with lawyers and a Los Angeles public relations firm.
He threatened to sue for wrongful termination and challenged the regents to come up with a specific reason why they were terminating his 10-year contract. The regents balked and paid off Dobelle instead. Dobelle boasted to the Globe that he walked away with $3.8 million, not including the $1 million the university paid to his lawyers and $100,000 for his publicist.
Dobelle stressed that he left with no finding of wrongdoing on his part and an understanding that politicians find bold leadership threatening. “I’m a change agent,” he told the Globe in August. “You know you’re going to get hit.”
Nine years later, the ill will lingers in Hawaii — and the allegations against Dobelle sound familiar. Hawaii Senate president Donna Mercado Kim, one of Dobelle’s harshest critics at the time, recalled that he spent huge amounts of money, but didn’t successfully raise money during his two years as president.
“He’d say, ‘You have to wine and dine these people,’ ” said Kim, referring to potential contributors. “But he didn’t raise anything for Hawaii.”
Freeland leveled the same charge against Dobelle last week, noting that he spends far more on expenses than other public university presidents, but fails to deliver on fund-raising. Westfield State is the only branch of the state university system that saw fund-raising decline between 2007 and 2012, according to state records, a period in which many others have seen a doubling of gifts.
“Fund-raising was dead last by a lot in the past two years,” said Freeland, “and has been one of the lowest two consistently over the past five years. A lot of these expenditures” by Dobelle “are being made in the service of raising money for Westfield. Yet, other presidents around the system are raising more money without these kinds of expenditures.”
But Dobelle’s spokesman dismissed Freeland’s letter to Dobelle, calling it little more than a “press release written by attorneys.” Regan also accused Freeland of piling on Dobelle now that he is taking public criticism, saying, “This is becoming a vendetta.”
However, Dobelle’s supporters rejected published reports that he is threatening to file a whistle-blower lawsuit charging that he is a victim of illegal retaliation by the trustees. Instead, they said he is exploring his legal options with his attorney, Ross Garber of Hartford, who has represented two governors in impeachment proceedings.
And Regan said the spotlight should really shine on Flynn, charging that he has aggressively pursued Dobelle even though Dobelle did nothing wrong.
“Mr. Flynn is trying to have a power coup,” said Regan.