Barry Saunders

Saunders: Could Dana Cope still be a force for good some day?

It is hard, except for super-sensitive people such as I, to feel sympathy for the plight that awaits Dana Cope.

Many people who knew and worked with him when he was at his power’s peak and ostensibly representing state employees say he was not one of those back-slapping, “hail fellow well met” type of dudes.

That’s why there were few people not named Cope wailing in court two weeks ago when Cope was sentenced to 58 months in prison for using the State Employees Association of North Carolina as his personal piggy bank.

Turns out, we learned after an N&O investigation, that as Cope was serving SEANC as executive director, he was serving himself – to eyebrow waxes and sugar scrubs and similarly frou-frou treatments at expensive spas that state employees working two or three jobs needed but didn’t even know existed.

Nobody should knock Cope for pampering himself – I, myself, have been known to squirt some extra Joy dishwashing detergent into my semi-weekly bath – but he shouldn’t have done it at the expense of state employees.

Of course, had he allowed the state employees to partake of the luxurious treatment he was lavishing upon himself at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, he might have had some allies in court when the judge lowered the boom on him. For instance, the place where I used to go get my corns sanded down – Tyquan’s Mani-Pedi, Pork Chop & Auto Repair Emporium – used to have coupons where you could get a free toe lick for every five referrals.

A toe lick, for the less cultivated among you, is where Tyquan’s old lady spreads barbecue sauce on your foot and lets his pit bull, Belle, lick it off. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Those corrections officers and road workers could’ve certainly benefited from some of the pampering to which Cope treated himself. They were also probably more deserving. Cope is a textbook example – indeed, the phrase could’ve been invented for him – of someone who came to do good but stayed to do well.

Howard Lee, a former mayor and state senator who repelled a challenge for his seat orchestrated by Cope, told me he’s seen many instances where people in power were corrupted by it. He cited two types of such corruption. “I’ve seen people make legislative decisions that create an advantage for self or for friends and acquaintances. They seek the position with an agenda – say, to make sure favorable decisions are made for financial or other institutions.

“There are, however, more people who, once in, find themselves being subjected to the pressure of others to create favorable positions for them,” he said. “Then, there are others who are just plain crooked. They have their hands out, their palms are greased” and they look out for the palm greasers.

As we write the postmortem on Dana Cope’s public life, though, I hope one thing – that it isn’t a postmortem. Public employees need someone who isn’t afraid to antagonize the powerful, who doesn’t yearn to be invited out for drinks by them or over to Thanksgiving supper. Cope, according to our reporters, was a unifying figure on Jones Street, where he went to lobby for employees: He was that rare public figure who aroused bi-partisan antipathy.

If homes does well in prison and recommits himself to doing good when he gets out – without the employee-supported eyebrow waxes and sugar scrubs – he could still be a force for good and fulfill the presumed altruism that propelled him into public life.

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