State Workers' Compensation Commissioner Stephen B. Delaney and his wife last year joined a delegation from Westfield State University on a trip to Cuba in apparent violation of federal travel restrictions related to U.S. economic sanctions, according to a Massachusetts inspector general's report.
In March 2013, then-Westfield State President Evan S. Dobelle — who resigned late last year amid scandal — led an "educational delegation" that accompanied the school's baseball team to Cuba for exhibition games against a Cuban squad.
But the "delegation" included family members and friends, such as the Delaneys, who had "no affiliation to the University" — even though a "travel affidavit" for each indicated that he or she was "a faculty member, staff person or student," the July 31 investigative report by Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha said.
"Dobelle's use of Westfield's name and status as an educational institution to enable ineligible individuals to travel to Cuba exposed the school to potential liability for violating federal restrictions," the report said, adding: "Individuals and corporations who violate the economic sanctions regulations are subject to a variety of civil and criminal penalties."
Delaney, 63, of West Hartford — friends with Dobelle since the latter's presidency of Trinity College in the 1990s — said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he didn't recall saying anything to anyone in the U.S. or Cuba, nor signing any document, claiming that he was affiliated with Westfield State or on official business.
He said that for him and his wife, it was a pleasure trip and "nobody asked me" at customs checks if he was affiliated with the school or why he was there. "We were part of the group," he said.
"I wouldn't jeopardize my job as a state official" by making any misrepresentation, said Delaney, who earns $150,000 as one of the state's 16 workers' compensation commissioners. He has spent 18 years in the quasi-judicial role, deciding contested cases involving workers' claims for injury benefits.
Although Delaney was mentioned in a report that blasted Dobelle on a wide range of issues, including lavish personal spending from university accounts, the section on the Cuba trip is focused on false justifications for the travel.
Delaney said that he paid the full expenses for himself and his wife, including flights and ground travel, food and lodging — about $5,000 in all. He said that he and his wife flew from Connecticut to Florida on a Thursday, to Cuba on a Friday, and left the island the following Tuesday.
After Delaney was interviewed, Westfield State released travel affidavit forms bearing signatures above the hand-printed names of Stephen and Angela Delaney, and listing 11 authorized categories into which a person is supposed to fit to travel to Cuba. The categories ranged from "Government Official" to "Academic Institution" faculty, staff or student. The first line of the affidavit says the signer should check which category he or she fits into, but neither Delaney did so.
Stephen Delaney could not be reached later to comment on the affidavits.
The section of Cunha's report that covered the Cuba trip was listed as one case in which "Dobelle engaged in improper and irresponsible conduct."
The report said that the night before the group flew from Miami to Havana, Dobelle's executive assistant, Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, sent an email to the travelers, including the Delaneys and others who had no affiliation to the school, "instructing them how to answer certain questions that customs officers in Cuba might ask."
"Specifically, she instructed them to say that they were an 'adjunct faculty of art and/or philanthropy' and that they were from 'Westfield State University, live in Massachusetts.'" One of the recipients "responded indicating he was concerned because all of his paperwork listed his address in California, not Massachusetts," Cunha's report said.
"Dobelle wrote back, 'Just say you live in California and help us with our California program which we do have in [San Francisco] every May and June at sfstate it's not a problem.[sic]," the report said. That email recipient and his wife, from California, canceled their trip the next morning.
Stephen Delaney said Wednesday that his understanding was that the couple canceled because the man's wife had become ill.
Cunha's report named Delaney as one of the recipients of Lugo-DeJesus' email, but Delaney denied ever seeing such a message. "I would have remembered that," he said.
Delaney was long active in Democratic politics in Hartford before Republican Gov. John G. Rowland nominated him and the legislature approved him in 1996 as a compensation commissioner. He and Dobelle are still participants, with other politically active figures with Hartford roots, in a "fantasy baseball" league in which players "draft" major leaguers and win or lose based on their teams' hitting and pitching statistics.
It was at the March 2012 preseason draft for that fantasy league, held at the Elks Hall in downtown Hartford, that the idea of Delaney's going to Cuba arose. During the two- or three-hour event, in which participants took turns choosing players to fill their rosters, Dobelle mentioned that Westfield State would be organizing a trip to Cuba the following year, Delaney said.
"Man, I'd love to see Cuba," Delaney recalled saying, adding that friends of his had been to the island.
"Well, I'll see what I can do," he said that Dobelle replied.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed suit earlier this month against Dobelle, seeking to recover nearly $100,000 that she said he ran up in unauthorized travel expenses and purchases. The suit says those expenses included the Cuba trip.
Cunha's report can be found online at: http://www.mass.gov/ig/publications/reports-and-recommendations/2014/review-of-spending-practices-by-former-westfield-state-university-president-evan-dobelle.pdf