BOSTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley sued former Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle on Thursday, alleging he used school-issued credit cards and school funds to make personal purchases and take vacations costing nearly $100,000.
In the lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court, Coakley said Dobelle misused public funds for trips that were nothing but weeklong vacations with family and friends, meals at high-end restaurants and gatherings at a private men's social club in California.
The complaint alleges Dobelle knowingly submitted to the university false claims for payment of personal expenses totaling at least $59,000. It also charges that Dobelle made at least $39,000 worth of travel requests, falsely stating those trips were for official university business.
Coakley said those actions violate the state's False Claims Act, Dobelle's employment contract, university policies and the state's conflict of interest law.
"This pattern of inappropriately spending state money is unacceptable, as leaders of public schools should be enforcing their policies instead of knowingly violating them for their own personal benefit," she said in a statement.
Dobelle's lawyer, Ross Garber, said Coakley has been presented with only limited facts and a one-sided version of the story. He said Coakley's office didn't ask for Dobelle's side of the story.
"In court, however, both sides are heard, and decisions are based on evidence, not innuendo and conjecture," Garber said in a statement. "Dr. Dobelle looks forward to a full and fair airing of the truth and to reclaiming his reputation."
Dobelle served as university president from January 2008 until his resignation in November 2013.
Coakley said her office launched its investigation into allegations of improper spending by Dobelle in the fall of 2013, following an initial report by the state inspector general's office regarding Dobelle's spending of university funds.
Coakley said that while Dobelle appears to have reimbursed expenses identified as personal, he often submitted his reimbursements months after he had made the purchases, in some instances using backdated checks to make the repayments appear timely.
The lawsuit alleges that Dobelle submitted travel requests falsely stating that at least 16 university-arranged and paid trips were for official university business, including fundraising, alumni relations and conferences, when they were primarily personal.
Those include a February 2012 trip to Cuba with his wife and friends, which cost more than $3,640, and multiple trips to California to attend events at the Bohemian Grove, a private men's social club in Monte Rio to which Dobelle belongs.
The lawsuit seeks damages, civil penalties, costs and attorney's fees.
A report released by Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn Cunha's office last week faulted what it called numerous instances of excessive or wasteful spending by Dobelle, including his decision to commission a portrait of himself in 2013 to be unveiled for the university's 175th anniversary and to bill the $777 cost to the university's nonprofit fundraising arm,
"His lavish tastes, poor planning and cavalier attitude about university funds were out of line with spending practices suitable for Massachusetts colleges and universities," the report said.