If you need proof that real life is stranger than fiction, review the election a few months back of a new president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
The group had been shaken by the indictment of its former executive director, Dana Cope, on two felony charges that he misappropriated $570,000 in SEANC funds.
The indictment followed a report by The News & Observer’s Joseph Neff in February that Cope had used SEANC checks and a phony invoice to pay for landscaping work at his home, as well as other questionable spending of association money.
Neff’s reporting grew out of revelations from SEANC insiders that Cope had misspent the association’s money for personal use.
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The SEANC executive director is a full-time job but like many associations, SEANC has a board of directors led by a part-time president.
Running for president this fall was Art Anthony, one of the whistle-blowers who exposed Cope. Also running was Ross Hailey, the first vice president of the SEANC executive committee who had been assigned to investigate Cope and concluded that Cope had done nothing improper. He has since admitted that he botched the investigation.
The whistle-blower lost.
The Cope defender won.
If you read that in a novel or saw it in a movie, you would have said, “That would never happen!”
In a bizarre speech before the vote for president in September, Hailey, a retired engineer, said he had been blindsided by the allegations about Cope. It took an audit and an SBI investigation to learn the extent of Cope's treachery, he said.
“The executive committee and I defended SEANC and continued to do so throughout the attacks by The News & Observer,” Hailey said. “Everything I did was to protect the organization.”
After Cope pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing from SEANC, I wanted to ask Hailey some questions, including:
▪ Do you still think the whistle-blowers should apologize for taking their complaints outside the organization?
▪ What did Neff do wrong by exposing Cope’s theft from your organization?
▪ What did you mean when you said everything you did was to “protect the organization”?
▪ How could you have been blindsided by the allegations about Cope? Neff presented you in January with documents showing that Cope used SEANC funds on flight lessons, home landscaping, entertainment and eyebrow waxing.
I reached Hailey by phone Wednesday at 5 pm. He declined comment, wished me a good evening and hung up. So I don’t have answers to the questions.
Cope was sentenced to 58 to 82 months in prison. To his credit, he took responsibility for his actions. “I am here because I am a thief,” Cope said in court Tuesday.
But SEANC faces a long road back to regain its credibility and Hailey’s September comments and his election don’t help. Hailey might make for a compelling character in a movie but illogic and misdirection aren’t often effective in real life.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens got it right when he said he was embarrassed for SEANC for its lack of oversight of Cope. “Shame on him,” Stephens said. “Shame on the organization from which he stole.”