BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU – Evan Dobelle, the former University of Hawaii president who was run out of Hawaii in 2004 after university regents had enough of his exorbitant credit card bills and extravagant spending, seems to be at it again.
Dobelle, 68, is under scrutiny again for his lavish spending at Westfield State University in Westfield, Mass., where he’s been president since 2007.
The Massachusetts Inspector General and the Board of Trustees of Westfield State University are auditing Dobelle’s travel costs after faculty members raised questions about the appropriateness of his expenditures.
Dobelle, who has compared himself to Apple founder Steve Jobs, had a tumultuous relationship with university officials and lawmakers here over spending, redirecting money, travel and more – but not at the beginning of his contract.
Before he left Hawaii and moved back to Boston in 2004, Dobelle struck gold as University of Hawaii president, courtesy of the taxpayers and private donors to the University of Hawaii Foundation.
In 2001, the former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and mayor of Pittsfield negotiated a 10-year contract for more than double the salary he’d gotten previously at Trinity College in Connecticut – $442,000 a year. Add that onto his six “secret” side contracts for a total of $720,000 a year. Dobelle gained the distinction of being not only the highest paid University president in Hawaii history, and the highest paid public employee in the state, but one of the highest paid college presidents in the nation.
The former University of Hawaii regents showered him with a generous retirement package, a hefty life insurance plan, and a protocol fund of $150,000 (raised to $200,000) reportedly to help him fundraise for the University foundation.
He was promised first class travel and hotel suites and had additional pledges from former regents, including a year long sabbatical with pay and full benefits in year 6; and in year 7, a payment of $1 million if his contract was not renewed for the 3-year extension.
In addition, Dobelle secured full tenure immediately (most professors wait 6 years), he was guaranteed a professors job when he completed his contract at the highest pay level; and his retirement fund would kick in after 5 years. He also had more than $40,000 allotted to him to join five business clubs – three in Hawaii and two highly exclusive clubs in the mainland.
In return, Dobelle made a promise that he’d be worth every penny and talked of being a “change agent.” Without hesitation. he sung his own praises. Some of those around him called him “visionary.” Others were astounded at his unbridled ego.
Dobelle was called before the Hawaii State Legislature and questioned as to why he did not raise $150 million as promised to expand the University’s medical school and why he had not replenished the University accounts after his wife spent $1 million more than allotted her on sprucing up the President’s mansion.
Many members of the former Board of Regents, frustrated with what they called “lavish spending” and a pattern of “lies and deceit,” wanted to fire Dobelle in 2003, but were initially intimidated. To be fired, Dobelle had to be a felon, declared mentally unstable by professionals, or perform conduct that constitutes “moral turpitude.”
The final straw that led to Dobelle’s ouster? Regents learned Dobelle redirected $125,000 in funds from two private donors to the University of Hawaii Foundation for his protocol fund, much to the outrage of the donors. He also used state time, resources and personnel to lobby five universities for jobs overseas, among other things.
On June 15, 2004, regents fired Dobelle for cause on the basis of “moral turpitude.” After reviewing the evidence against Dobelle, his lawyers settled for just a little more than $1 million.
With the controversial history in Hawaii, it was no surprise for lawmakers and university staff to learn that in his new position at Westfield, Dobelle took 27 trips and spent $28,000 – more trips and more money than all leaders of public universities in Massachusetts.
The Boston Globe reports that in 2008, Dobelle spent “$8,000 for a four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok; $883 from the upscale clothing store Louis Boston; $10,000 for tickets to shows at Tanglewood; more than $4,000 for limousine rides” and a total of $200,000 in credit card charges to the foundation. He racked up more charges on his executive assistant’s university credit card.
Dobelle defended himself in a recent statement to the Boston Globe: “When I spend money, that’s what I’m doing. I do things for kids.”