Dana Cope, the former executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to stealing a half-million dollars from the organization he led for 15 years.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens sentenced Cope to 58 to 82 months in state prison. Cope paid $165,000 in restitution to the state employees association earlier Tuesday. He still owes $345,000.
The plea to two felonies capped a rapid fall from power for Cope, 46, who was the pugnacious and confrontational voice of state employees at the General Assembly. The crimes were built around, but not limited to, Cope’s home inside the Beltline in Raleigh, where he used SEANC funds for landscaping, appliances, sound systems and much more.
Cope arrived in the wood-paneled, windowless courtroom with his wife, Melinda, and his mother. Wearing a charcoal suit with white shirt and yellow striped tie, he sat with his lawyers, Roger Smith Jr. and Roger Smith Sr.
Judge Stephens asked Cope: “Are you indeed guilty of these crimes?”
Cope: “Yes, sir.”
Later, Stephens said: “It’s shocking, and I’m not easily shocked. It’s shocking how easily and brazenly this happened.”
Most defendants are 18- and 19-year-olds, Stephens said, many with fathers in prison and crack addicts for mothers.
“When they were born, they never had a chance,” Stephens said. “I don’t understand why Dana Cope is here.”
Cope briefly apologized to SEANC and his family.
“I am here because I am a thief,” he said. “I need to do what is appropriate and take full responsibility.”
As sheriff’s deputies led Cope out of the courtroom to be taken to prison, he did not look back at his family. Melinda Cope sobbed in the arms of her mother-in-law. She told reporters that it was a “very sad day for her family” and declined to say more.
The whistleblowers watch
Cope’s troubles began in February after The News & Observer reported that he used SEANC checks and a phony invoice to pay a landscaping company that had done work at his home. He also used SEANC credit cards to pay for electronics, expensive clothes and eyebrow waxing.
At the time, the SEANC executive committee derided the article as “simply not true.” Cope blamed his troubles on political enemies inside and outside of SEANC.
Many of the documents for The N&O’s investigation were provided by a former SEANC treasurer, Betty Jones, who said she was bringing the records forward to save the organization. Jones and Art Anthony, a second former SEANC board member turned whistleblower, watched in court Tuesday along with their lawyer, Michael Weisel.
The day after the article was published, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman started an investigation. Cope resigned one day later.
The national union with which SEANC is affiliated, the Service Employees International Union, subsequently paid for an internal audit that found a half million dollars in improper spending.
Cope was indicted in August on two felony charges that he spent $570,000 of the association’s money on flight lessons, home appliances, vacations and other unauthorized purchases.
According to SBI special agent Tammy Forsythe, Cope took $548,317.82. That included $77,000 for landscaping at his house.
A sugar scrub
Cope used SEANC credit cards and checks to pay for extravagances unaffordable for the correction officers, road workers, psychiatric nurses and other state workers whose dues he took for his personal pleasure, records and testimony show.
The theft took place for years, overlapping the 2011 to 2014 period in which Cope filed for and emerged from personal bankruptcy, wiping out $109,000 in credit card debt.
Freeman introduced a sheaf of receipts and invoices into evidence as a sample of Cope’s embezzlement. Forsythe, the lead investigator, testified to the particulars of each purchase.
In April 2010, Cope spent $618 at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary on massages, a pedicure and a manicure, and a Babassu (BAH-bah-sue) Sugar Scrub, described as “a stimulating 100% organic experience combining aromatherapy with exfoliating and moisturizing products. Your body is gently scrubbed with a combination of raw organic sugar and oil from the Babassu Palm, leaving your skin smooth and glowing.”
In January 2015, he returned to the Umstead to spend $112.87 on an afternoon of kids’ doughnuts and upscale desserts such as panna cotta, coulant and affogatos.
Cope spent $4,550 on a tailor in Hong Kong and $295 at Charles Tyrwhitt, a London clothier known as “Home of the Proper Shirt.” He paid $1,400 for a children’s playhouse and spent $1,000 to rent a boat at Lake Jordan for a week for three adults and two children.
He spent $1,500 on a lifetime family membership at the North Carolina Zoo and $4,565 on airplane tickets and a six-day stay with his wife at a luxury hotel in Bermuda.
Much of Cope’s trouble stemmed from projects at his home on Sturbridge Court. The house underwent major renovations in 2013, followed by extensive landscaping work. Work on a backyard pool was halted in February, after The N&O’s report about his spending.
$1,400 in garage shelving
Cope outfitted his home with custom shutters and shades and charged $5,700 to the association’s legislative affairs account.
He bought a $3,613 audio system, complete with a high-definition projector, speakers and a DJ Mixer, and billed it as SEANC office equipment. He spent $3,200 on patio furniture for his swimming pool and $3,000 for a black aluminum fence around the pool. In his house, he spent $2,200 on a six-piece sofa set and $1,400 on garage shelving.
Those expenditures were only a sample of Cope’s embezzlement, evidence that Freeman presented Tuesday to justify the plea deal.
In his client’s defense, Roger Smith Jr. said Cope took responsibility by quickly resigning after the newspaper article appeared and before the criminal investigation began.
“It was probably the smartest thing he’s done recently,” Stephens interjected.
Freeman agreed that Cope took responsibility after stepping down, but noted that in the weeks before, Cope shredded SEANC documents, deleted emails and disposed of his computer hard drive. Freeman pointed to the luxuries – out of reach for the tens of thousands of hard-working state employees whose dues were stolen.
“This is an age-old story of abuse of power and greed,” said Freeman. “It’s despicable.”
Betty Jones and Art Anthony, the former board members who blew the whistle, said it was a sad day for SEANC and Cope’s family.
“Hopefully he’ll have time to think about everything,” Jones said, “and come out of prison a better person.”
Cope: Elbows out
A look at Dana Cope’s time in North Carolina:
▪ 1992: After working on the failed presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, Cope comes to North Carolina to work on the election campaign of Harry Payne, a Democratic candidate for state labor commissioner. After winning, Payne hires Cope.
▪ 2000: Runs for commissioner of labor but drops out to become executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC). Soon attacks Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and other top leaders. SEANC endorses the Republican opponents of two top Democrats.
▪ 2004: SEANC endorses Republican Patrick Ballantine for governor, its first endorsement for a GOP statewide candidate. Democrat Mike Easley wins handily, leaving SEANC in bad graces of Easley and Basnight, the most powerful politician in state.
▪ 2008: Under Cope’s direction, SEANC becomes an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union
▪ 2009: Leads attack on Wake County school board after his children were assigned to a new elementary school. Arrested after a scuffle with a 64-year-old neighbor. A Democratic state senator calls General Assembly police to remove Cope from his legislative office.
▪ 2011: Cope files for personal bankruptcy.
▪ 2012: Cope signs five-year contract giving him entire control of the business and operation of SEANC, including hiring and firing staff.
▪ 2014: Cope emerges from bankruptcy.
▪ 2015: The News & Observer reports that Cope spent SEANC money on personal items and flight lessons and submitted a phony invoice for a check cashed by a landscaping firm working at his home. Cope resigns two days later. A subsequent audit finds $500,000 in questionable spending.