Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against former Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle on Thursday, alleging that he improperly spent nearly $100,000 in university resources on personal expenses such as family trips to Cuba, meals at expensive restaurants and frequent visits to an exclusive men’s club near San Francisco.
The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges that Dobelle, also former president of the University of Hawaii, filed false reports to Westfield State to justify $59,000 in personal expenses and another $39,000 in personal travel. The suit says that Dobelle eventually repaid most of the money, but often months later. Under the state False Claims Act, Dobelle could be required to repay triple damages if Coakley prevails.
"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 in a statement. "This pattern of inappropriately spending state funds is unacceptable, as leaders of public schools should be enforcing their policies instead of knowingly violating them for their own personal benefit."
Dobelle, who resigned in November after Globe reports on his extravagant spending, has insisted he did nothing wrong and that all of the expenditures were part of his effort to turn Westfield State into a world-class institution. He has filed a federal lawsuit against Westfield and state officials alleging that they conspired to push him out because he wanted to change the Springfield-area school from being a "diploma mill" for police officers.
Dobelle’s lawyer, Ross Garber, accused Coakley of filing a one-sided lawsuit, noting that her staff did not speak to Dobelle himself.
"In court, however, both sides are heard, and decisions are based on evidence, not innuendo and conjecture," said Garber, who added that a federal judge has refused to dismiss Dobelle’s lawsuit. "Dr. Dobelle looks forward to a full and fair airing of the truth and to reclaiming his reputation."
Coakley’s action comes on the heels of a scathing report from state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha last week charging that Dobelle improperly used hundreds of thousands of dollars from school accounts during his six-year tenure to pay for personal expenses as well as wasteful public expenses such as a celebrity speaker series and a portrait of himself.
"It’s outrageous for the president of a university to engage in the kind of behavior the investigation uncovered," Cunha said last week, noting that Dobelle’s wastefulness nearly bankrupted the university’s private fundraising arm.
Coakley’s office, which has been investigating Dobelle’s spending practices since last fall, found that Dobelle made hundreds of personal purchases on university-related credit cards, sometimes charging thousands to the school in a single month.
While Dobelle repaid many of the expenses when they were brought to his attention, the lawsuit said the repayments were often months late and repaid using backdated checks to make the reimbursement seem timely.
Coakley alleges that Dobelle disguised the personal expenditures by filing false statements to the university regarding at least 16 trips that cost Westfield State more than $39,000.
The suit said Dobelle claimed to be attending conferences, raising money or doing other university business when he was primarily there on personal business.
In one case, a February 2012 trip to Cuba, Dobelle took along his wife and personal friends at a cost to the university of $3,640. Dobelle also charged the school for multiple personal trips to California to attend events at the Bohemian Grove, a private men’s club in Monte Rio, of which he is a member, Coakley’s office said.
Dobelle was allowed to resign as president of the UH system in 2004 after the Board of Regents unanimously voted to fire him amid charges of lavish spending, dishonesty and wasting university resources.
Dobelle threatened to sue for wrongful termination, and UH negotiated a settlement that included a $1.3 million payment to Dobelle and his attorneys to buy out the remainder of his contract.