Dana Cope and members of his team at the State Employees Association of North Carolina visited The News & Observer on Feb. 3 and asked us not to publish a story about SEANC spending.
Cope had picked many public fights with politicians during his 15 years as executive director of SEANC, which represents 55,000 state employees and retirees.
Now he was on the defensive. Former members of SEANC’s executive committee questioned Cope’s spending. A former treasurer provided documents to The N&O to support her concerns.
The N&O’s Joseph Neff had reported for weeks about the blurred lines of Cope’s personal spending and SEANC finances. But Neff, even after interviewing Cope five times, couldn’t get clear answers.
No problems here
SEANC’s 13-member executive committee, led by Wayne Fish, a food-service manager at a state prison, didn’t see problems where we did. SEANC said it had investigated questions raised by Neff and concluded that SEANC money had not been misspent. SEANC said it had answered Neff’s questions and there was nothing to see.
“SEANC requests that The News & Observer respect the integrity of SEANC’s ethics process and refrain from printing a story that not only is unsubstantiated but which has been disproven by our own democratically elected governing body,” the executive committee said in a statement read by SEANC lawyer Tom Harris during the meeting at The N&O.
Cope, Harris and two other top-level SEANC employees met with Neff, investigations editor Steve Riley and me.
The meeting was on the record. Nothing Cope and Harris said convinced us we should not publish a story.
In separate interviews, three former members of SEANC’s executive committee questioned Cope’s SEANC spending. The allegations would no doubt be of interest to the many state employees throughout the region; they could read the story and decide for themselves if the spending was proper.
We published our story a few days after meeting with Cope.
Our story said SEANC, without getting bids, paid $109,000 to a landscaping firm that also had done extensive work at Cope’s home.
Especially troubling was that 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 was cashed by a company with a similar name – Perspective Landscape Concepts, the firm that worked at Cope’s house.
Harris, the lawyer, said at The N&O that there was an explanation for the phony invoice but he would not discuss it because it was a personnel matter.
He also said some of the $109,000 paid for landscape work that would be done in the future at SEANC. He said invoices proved it.
But he would not let The N&O see the invoices – even though SEANC said it gave Neff “financial records and explanations that establish that all of the expenditures via check and wire transfer were legitimately for SEANC purposes.”
In other words, SEANC said it had provided The N&O with all relevant documents. But it had not.
SEANC is a private, nonprofit organization. But as a collection of government employees, it has even more of an obligation than most nonprofits to operate openly.
Instead, its executive committee has stonewalled. Fish, the SEANC president, said our story was “quite simply, not true.” But he didn’t say what was not true.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Monday she’d ask the State Bureau of Investigation to conduct a criminal inquiry.
Cope resigned Tuesday, saying he had “blurred the line between my personal life and my professional life.”
We’ll keep reporting.