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September 25, 2013 1:09 PM One College President’s Creative Whistleblower Strategy

By Daniel Luzer

EvanDobelle

Evan Dobelle (right), president of Massachusetts’s Westfield State University, is in trouble for extravagant spending. But he might be able to get out of punishment because Dobelle argues he’s a whistleblower, on himself.

According to an article in Boston Globe:

The boosters at Westfield State University wanted to support their ambitious new president in his quest to make the former teachers college into an educational powerhouse. So the school’s private foundation gave Evan S. Dobelle a credit card to pay what were meant to be “generally small amounts” for fund-raising expenses, such as meals with donors.
Then, in the fall of 2008, they started getting Dobelle’s bills: $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.

Westfield State College Foundation closed Dobelle’s credit card after two years, but by then he’d apparently charged more than $200,000 to the foundation, equivalent to more than 80 percent of his annual $240,000 salary. He eventually agreed to pay back about $20,000 of the cost, though he apparently kept spending, using his executive assistant’s university credit card.

Some state education officials are asking the college’s board of trustees to punish the president for his spending.

But now, according to a piece in The Republican:

Amid mounting criticism of his travel expenses, Dobelle has repeatedly said he “self-reported” billing the university for dozens of airline, hotel and restaurant bills for himself and his family.
Dobelle has retained a lawyer and is exploring using the state Whistleblower Act to shield him from possible punishment by school trustees or state investigators, two sources confirmed Thursday.

Under Massachusetts law public employees are “protected from firing suspension, demotion, and any adverse employment action being taken as a reprisal” for “disclosing, threatening to disclose, providing information, [about] any activity, practice, or policy that the employee reasonably believes is in violation of law, rule, or regulation, or poses a risk to public health, safety, or the environment.”

Makes sense, right? It appears the Westfield State vice president of administration and finance, Gerald Hayes, noticed the gigantic credit card spending but, because Dobelle then subsequently informed the board of trustees, Dobelle thinks he might be immune from punishment. “I self-reported,” Dobelle said to The Republican.

I might be missing something here, but if Massachusetts law actually protects public employees from punishment for “violation[s] of law, rule, or regulation” the employees actually commit themselves (just because they admitted to the violation before everyone discovered it) that’s a pretty serious weakness in the law.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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