Once, Dana Cope was the king, he thought, of all he surveyed as head of the 53,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina. And he acted the part, criticizing the state treasurer, Janet Cowell, for her handling of retirement funds, even though her performance was superior, and taking on others he didn’t like, such as current Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Cope was a pugnacious leader who surrounded himself with those who met the chief requirement of demonstrating loyalty to him. Along the way, he seemed to forget he was supposed to be the servant of the employees, who counted on him to protect their interests in terms of health care coverage, retirement and salary increases. The longer he was in office (which he assumed in 2000), the more aggressive Cope got in speaking out.
Now he is headed for five years in prison after accepting a tough plea deal required by Freeman. Cope pleaded guilty on two felony charges that he misspent $570,000 of the association’s money on personal indulgences such as flying lessons, vacations, landscaping and even clothes and eyebrow waxing.
It is a tragedy when anyone goes to prison and leaves a family behind. So there is no joy in Cope’s fate.
But the association rejected the leadership candidacy of one of the whistle-blowers who helped bring Cope’s excesses to light. Members need to stand up and demand better; their organization’s credibility is in tatters. Under Cope, the organization had a reputation of being run by a close-knit group that seemed uninterested in the concerns of state employees.
When The News & Observer first reported on Cope’s misspending, his loyal allies in SEANC rallied round, first demanding the newspaper not run the stories, then conducting a ridiculous internal investigation that found no wrongdoing.
But a subsequent SBI investigation and audit found wholesale financial improprieties, and Cope resigned, acknowledging he’d blurred the line between his professional and private life. That was putting it mildly.
At a time when Republicans in the General Assembly are no friends of public employees, be they state workers or teachers, SEANC needs to rebuild and retool its leadership. The organization can do much good for state employees, provided the leadership understands its mission and avoids the arrogance of power that ultimately led to Cope’s downfall.
Dana Cope let greed, and not the humble mission of service, guide him, and now he must pay the price for horrendous errors and excesses.