Politics & Government

Former SEANC director Dana Cope to face felony charges

Dana Cope during an interview on Jan. 27, 2015. He was indicted on Monday.
Dana Cope during an interview on Jan. 27, 2015. He was indicted on Monday. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Dana Cope, the former longtime head of the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina, was indicted Monday on felony charges that he took $570,000 of the organization’s money and spent it on flight lessons, landscaping, home appliances, vacations and other unauthorized purchases.

A Wake County grand jury charged Cope, 45, two times with obtaining property by false pretenses. He had been SEANC’s director for 15 years before resigning in February, shortly after Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman launched a criminal investigation.

Each charge involves more than $100,000 in goods and services Cope allegedly bought for himself with SEANC money during a five-year period. The two charges are Class C felonies. State sentencing laws typically require a prison sentence of roughly three to 71/2 years for a first-time offender at that level, which means Cope is facing six to 15 years in a state prison if convicted on both counts.

Freeman called the case “disheartening and discouraging.” She said the evidence indicates Cope improperly took dues contributed by employees making an average of $30,000 a year and who joined the association expecting it to help them with better pay and working conditions.

Cope declined to comment, referring all questions to his attorney, Roger Smith Jr. of Raleigh. Smith said in a statement that Cope “has cooperated with the State Bureau of Investigation and the Wake County District Attorney’s office from the beginning of their investigation. Now that Dana has been formally charged he will continue to cooperate fully in answering these charges.”

Among the improper spending with SEANC funds listed in the indictment: landscaping, clothing and jewelry, home renovations and appliances, vacations, hotel rooms, massages and plastic surgery. Freeman said the surgery involved a scar on one of Cope’s hands.

Work at his home

Much of Cope’s trouble stemmed from projects at his home on Sturbridge Court in Raleigh, inside the Beltline. The house underwent major renovations in 2013, followed by extensive landscaping work. Work on a backyard pool was halted in February, after The News & Observer published a report about Cope’s spending.

Cope had directed SEANC to spend $109,000 with a landscaping firm that had also done the work on his home. One check, for nearly $19,000, was made out to a defunct computer company with a name similar to the landscaping company. It was justified by a phony invoice, and the landscaping firm cashed the check.

A subsequent audit released in April by a private firm hired by SEANC’s parent union, Service Employees International, turned up nearly a half-million dollars in unjustified spending and credit card transactions from October 2012 to February 2015.

The audit found only $14,500 of the landscaping company’s work was justified, and it referred to more than $25,000 in undocumented spending that Cope charged to SEANC at Best Buy and Garner TV and Appliance.

The audit also found:

▪ Cope fabricated the phony invoice to the landscaping company and made $94,505 in excessive payments to the firm, Prospective Landscape Concepts.

▪ Cope spent $14,708 in SEANC funds to take his wife and sons on a trip to China.

▪ Cope directed $31,345 of SEANC money to pay for private flight lessons.

▪ Cope used SEANC credit cards for $404,948 in purchases that were undocumented or had no SEANC purpose.

Freeman said the financial irregularities in the State Bureau of Investigation’s criminal probe largely correlate to the audit findings.

Cope is expected to appear before a magistrate on Tuesday morning.

Changes at SEANC

Mitch Leonard, SEANC’s new executive director, called the indictment “an unfortunate turn of events for Mr. Cope.”

He said in a statement the association is taking “all of the necessary steps – resulting from three independent investigations of our operations – to secure SEANC from ever experiencing a breach of leadership again.”

The path to the charges began with two former SEANC board members, Betty Jones and Art Anthony. Jones was a SEANC treasurer who noticed expenditures that looked odd. When she and Anthony raised questions, they were voted out of office. Jones then brought information and documents to The N&O. Jones and Anthony were later vilified by the SEANC executive board.

Jones referred questions Monday to Michael Weisel, an attorney representing Jones and Anthony; Weisel said the indictment was a “black stain” for an association that dates back to the 1940s.

The story so far

On Feb. 7, the News & Observer published a story raising questions about spending within the State Employees Association of North Carolina after two former executive board members came forward with concerns of possible misspending. The newspaper reviewed internal SEANC records to report money spent on flight lessons, landscaping and building renovations. Much of the spending appeared directed by Dana Cope, the association’s longtime director.

Cope told the N&O that the spending was legitimate, and the association’s executive committee said a thorough review showed no improprieties. But the report sparked a state criminal investigation and Cope stepped down shortly after, saying he had “blurred the line” between his professional and personal lives.