Former UH president Dobelle placed on paid leave at Mass. university

Former UH president Dobelle defends high spending at Mass. university
Evan Dobelle
Evan Dobelle
Jack Flynn
Jack Flynn

WESTFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS (HawaiiNewsNow) - [Update 1:15 p.m. Thursday]

Former UH President Evan Dobelle has been placed on administrative paid leave as the president of Westfield State University in Massachusetts.

The move is pending an investigation of his spending practices at the university.

State officials are looking into allegations of reckless spending of school funds for personal use.

The decision was announced after a 10-hour closed-door meeting by school trustees.

Dobelle's lawyer says he plans to take legal action against the school.

[Original story posted below]

Former University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle Wednesday night defended his practice of charging large travel and entertainment bills to the foundation that supports the school where he is currently president, Westfield State University in Massachusetts. That comes nine years after UH regents tried to terminate him for similar spending habits, resulting in his resignation from the university.

Dobelle has been under fire for charging more than $200,000 to the Westfield College Foundation and using that money for luxury hotel stays, fancy dinners, limo rides and other questionable expenses.

"We've had allegations of clear policy violations and we just can't ignore those," Jack Flynn, chairman of the university's board of trustees, told reporters during a meeting Wednesday night in Westfield, which is near Springfield, Mass.

At the meeting, the school's board of trustees released an outside accountant's review of Dobelle's spending.

The report found Dobelle mixed personal and business spending while making 76-out-of-state trips in the 68 months he's headed the university.

Among his charges to the university foundation:

  • $12,000 for an "Oriental Hotel"
  • $525 worth of tickets to a James Taylor concert
  • An unexplained $8,000 wire transfer to Vietnam

Dobelle said he's paid the foundation back about $35,000 in personal expenses. But some repayments were delayed three years, and he made some of them only after the accountant began reviewing his spending.

He also said every dime he's spent has been for the good of the university.

"We have accomplished with the board's approval, game changing success," Dobelle said at the meeting Wednesday.

Dobelle said those successes include making Westfield State Massachusetts' best valued university and raising its image around the world.

He read a statement and didn't take any questions.

"Our investments will pay huge to the citizens of the Commonwealth (Massachusetts) on our educated workforce in the future--and I think each and every one of us deserves to be proud of what we've accomplished together," Dobelle said.

In 2004, Dobelle was fired as president of the University of Hawaii because of concerns about his high spending on travel as well as $90,000 in university funds he spent on polls for politicians and $1 million he spent on renovations to the president's mansion on College Hill.

The Board of Regents later backtracked and rescinded his dismissal after Dobelle threatened to sue. UH paid him $1.05 million cash and he resigned from the job as part of a settlement with the university.

In June 2004, the regents terminated Dobelle from his $442,000-a-year position for cause, meaning that he stood to lose $2.26 million in severance pay. After he threatened to sue, his lawyer and the university reached a settlement in which he agreed to resign, but received $1.05 million in severance pay and other benefits, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported at the time. In exchange, the regents rescinded their "fired for cause" decision.

Documents released by the university showed Dobelle spent $1 million on renovations of the president's home at College Hill in 2001, a move that drew criticism from the public and regents. The renovations' original price estimate was much lower, $170,000, the newspaper said.

Documents also showed he spent about $90,000 in nonprofit UH Foundation money under his control to pay for polls in 2001 and 2003. The polls included questions measuring the public's attitudes about politicians including then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, then-U.S. Rep. Ed Case, then-Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, the Star-Bulletin reported.

At the time, Dobelle's attorney, Rick Fried, said, "There are no smoking guns here," claiming that the documents did not reveal any wrongdoing.

The regents never explained publicly what their cause was for trying to fire Dobelle, and as part of a mediated settlement, rescinded his termination.

The episode was costly for taxpayers and took nearly two months to resolve. The regents fired Dobelle June 15, 2004, and after the UH hired lawyers to represent its case and agreed to Dobelle's million-dollar payout, both sides settled the dispute in early August, when he agreed to step down on Aug. 14 of that year.

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