Dana Cope resigned Tuesday as executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, a rapid fall for a pugnacious leader who had guided the organization for the past 15 years.
Cope and SEANC will confront significant challenges in the coming months.
Cope faces an inquiry from the State Bureau of Investigation for his handling of SEANC finances. The national union with which SEANC is affiliated, the Service Employees International Union, said it is taking the allegations of financial misconduct seriously.
Meanwhile, SEANC is without its longtime leader at the start of the legislative session, when lawmakers make critical decisions on pay, pension and other issues critical to state employees and retirees who make up SEANC’s 55,000 members.
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Cope resigned two days after a News & Observer report about possible financial improprieties at SEANC. The article documented that the organization had paid $109,000 in unbid work to the landscaping firm that had also done extensive work at Cope’s home.
One check for nearly $19,000 was justified by a phony invoice and was made out to a defunct computer company called Perspective Concepts in Washington, D.C. That check, however, was cashed by Perspective Landscape Concepts, the firm working at Cope’s house.
The article also detailed how SEANC has paid more than $8,000 for flight lessons for Cope without the SEANC board’s prior approval, and questionable spending by Cope on SEANC credit cards.
While the SEANC executive committee continued to say Tuesday that it investigated and found no improprieties, Cope struck a different tone.
“In recent days, I’ve come to realize that in carrying out the duties of my job, I have blurred the line between my personal life and my professional life,” he said at a brief news conference. “In tendering my resignation today, I take full responsibility for my shortcomings.”
Cope took no questions after his 90-second appearance.
Cope was clearly under mounting pressure. On Monday, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman asked the State Bureau of Investigation to conduct a criminal inquiry into SEANC’s spending.
Cope, 45, is known as an outspoken and feisty leader who had pushed the organization further into political activity. SEANC’s executive committee has expressed support for him and has called the N&O story untrue while declining to detail any inaccuracies.
John Davis, a longtime analyst of state politics, called Cope’s resignation “a great, great opportunity for state employees.”
“He operated with an abrasive, in-your-face style that antagonized legislators,” said Davis, who ticked off a long, bipartisan list of people Cope attacked: Sen. Marc Basnight, former Gov. Mike Easley, Sen. Howard Lee, Sen. Ralph Hise, and many more.
“It’s no wonder state employees have struggled for years to get a raise,” Davis said. “This is their opportunity to get leadership that respects the role of the legislature.”
State Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake Democrat with a large number of state employees in his district, said he was surprised by the newspaper’s revelations but not by Cope’s resignation.
SEANC needs to move forward with priorities that “could not wait a year or two for other things to be investigated or worked out,” Jackson said. A change in leadership offers SEANC a “new opportunity to change the tone with Republican leadership.”
Cope will be replaced on an interim basis by longtime SEANC employee Mitch Leonard, a former SEANC lobbyist who is well-known at the legislature.
Leonard, an Army veteran, first joined the association when he began working at the N.C. Department of Transportation in 1970. In 1977, he became the association’s first field representative. Leonard has performed almost every job within the association: lobbying, editing newsletters and enrolling members.
Hiring 2 companies
Cope will return to his home at Sturbridge Court inside the Raleigh Beltline, which received extensive renovations and landscaping work in the past two years. At Cope’s urging, the two companies that worked on his home both have been hired to work for SEANC, even though one had no previous commercial experience and the other was just getting started in the landscaping business.
Cope has said repeatedly that no SEANC money went to any of the work at his home, and he showed the N&O personal checks totaling more than $250,000 for construction and landscaping.
Cope filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011, a proceeding that wiped out $109,000 in credit-card debt. He emerged from bankruptcy in 2014; he said his financial turnaround was the result of a substantial inheritance his wife, Melinda, received after her mother’s death in 2013.
Cope’s spending is also likely to come under scrutiny from the Service Employees International Union. SEANC is an affiliate of SEIU.
“SEIU’s international office was made aware of the allegations involving SEANC’s executive director – which are denied by the local – in the past 24 to 48 hours,” SEIU spokeswoman Sahar Wali said in a statement. “SEIU takes specific allegations of financial impropriety seriously. Its legal department will evaluate the situation to determine the appropriate next steps.”
N&O staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed.