Oh, it’s true, all right, that the State Employees Association of North Carolina is a private organization and not subject to public records and open meetings laws. But the last thing an organization in the middle of a monumental crisis needs is to not only allow suspicions to grow, but to foster more of them.
That’s exactly what the group’s leaders did over the weekend when they held a closed-door meeting in Raleigh. One focus of the meeting apparently was to deal with a proposed no-confidence vote in the group’s 11-member executive committee.
It’s unclear what happened at the meeting, because security officers barred all except the leadership. Members of the news media were ordered to leave.
This is the worst possible reaction to a News & Observer investigation into SEANC’s questionable spending. That includes spending on landscaping, flight lessons for SEANC’s head, Dana Cope, entertainment expenses charged to a SEANC credit card by Cope and a phony invoice to a computer services company that had gone out of business.
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Cope resigned in the wake of the investigation and is reportedly under the counsel of at least two of Raleigh’s top lawyers. Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County district attorney, has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to conduct a criminal investigation into SEANC spending.
Board failed members
SEANC’s board members should follow Cope in resigning. They allowed Cope entirely too much leeway with the organization’s funds and supported Cope in the face of clear evidence that the group’s financial affairs were out of order and possibly being deliberately misused. The board has finally said it will have an outside accounting firm examine SEANC’s finances.
But the group’s performance still is a miserable failure by a board charged with oversight.
The board only compounds its problems and underlines the need for its leaders to go with the weekend’s closed meeting.
Wayne Fish, the executive board’s president and a Cope loyalist, said after The N&O’s investigation was reported that he faulted two SEANC whistleblowers and former executive board members, Betty Jones and Art Anthony, for speaking out. “I am disappointed,” he said, “that two of our fellow members, two people who swore to work to advocate for and protect state employees and retirees, would take these sorts of steps to try to publicly embarrass and discredit our association.”
That is an outrageous statement that clearly shows why Fish and the rest of the board members should be ousted by those they have ineffectively represented. Jones and Anthony were working for state employees when they spoke out. What they did in defying Cope’s leadership was courageous.
This 55,000-member association can be a positive and constructive force for state workers, but not as long as clouds of suspicion hang over it and certainly not as long as the association’s leadership stays in place. And when a leader of any such organization suggests that those who spoke out should have kept quiet, alarms should go off in the membership.
SEANC’s leadership, such as it is, can continue to have secret meetings if it wishes. But if Fish and others think this huge crisis is something they can just “ride out” or let pass over them, they’re wrong. A criminal investigation is a serious matter indeed, and if they want to close their doors and refuse to answer questions now, that’s their choice. But the SBI won’t give them a choice.
Secrecy, the rank and file SEANC members surely know, is never a good sign when it comes to an organization’s leadership and the effectiveness of that leadership. If their leaders will not rise to the occasion, SEANC members must, and soon.