After being accused of spending $570,000 in state employees’ dues on flight lessons, jewelry, home renovations and appliances, Dana Cope had to spend a couple of hours Tuesday coming up with a way to secure a $200,000 bail bond.
Cope was the director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina for 15 years before some odd-looking invoices triggered suspicion from an association officer, a News & Observer investigation and a State Bureau of Investigation probe. That led to his initial appearance Tuesday on two counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.
Each count is a Class C felony because the charges pertain to unauthorized use of more than $100,000 in SEANC money. The indictment accuses him of spending association money on multiple items that appear to be personal, including vacations and massages. As a result, Cope is looking at as much as 15 years in state prison.
Wake County Magistrate J.D. Saferight set Cope’s bail at $200,000, and Cope surrendered his passport. He was released at about 1:30 p.m. on a bond that appeared to be secured by a condominium owned by his wife, Melinda Cope, at Carolina Beach. He didn’t speak to reporters as the couple left the Wake County Detention Center.
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They had arrived at the complex around 10 a.m. with his attorney, Roger Smith Jr.
“Today’s purpose was to follow the process, turning himself in, continuing the cooperation that he has been doing throughout the investigation,” Smith said later. He declined to discuss the case further.
No restitution yet
A Wake County grand jury indicted Cope, 46, of Raleigh on the felony charges that he took $570,000 of the organization’s money for unauthorized uses during a five-year period. He resigned in February, shortly after Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman launched an inquiry.
Finding a way to pay SEANC back may help Cope in the criminal case. He has returned $148,000 in severance the organization paid him when he resigned, but nothing from any of the spending outlined in the indictment.
“My understanding is that is part of what the criminal process is looking at,” said Hardy Lewis, a Raleigh lawyer who has been working for the association to help sort out the details of Cope’s spending. “But none of that has happened.”
Among the improper spending 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.
Much of Cope’s trouble stemmed from projects at the Copes’ home on Sturbridge Court, inside the Beltline in Raleigh, valued for taxes at $669,000. 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 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, which also criticized the N&O’s reporting.
Cope is due to make his first appearance before a Superior Court judge Monday.