The State Employees Association of North Carolina on Friday elected as president Ross Hailey, the board member who conducted the botched internal investigation into former executive director Dana Cope.
By a vote of 368-353, SEANC delegates at the association’s annual convention narrowly rejected the candidacy of Art Anthony, one of the former board members who blew the whistle by bringing evidence of misconduct by Cope to The News & Observer. A little more than 100 delegates did not cast a vote.
This was the first SEANC convention since the scandal over Cope’s misspending erupted in February. In August, a Wake County grand jury indicted Cope on two felony charges that he misappropriated $570,000 in SEANC funds.
Hailey, a civil engineer retired from the state Department of Transportation, performed the initial internal investigation that absolved Cope of any wrongdoing. Cope and SEANC’s executive committee had cited that finding when they urged the newspaper not to publish a story on Cope. The N&O story published in February led to a State Bureau of Investigation probe and Cope’s indictment.
After Friday’s vote, Hailey said he would work to heal the divisions and unite the organization.
“I spoke with Art Anthony, and we are for the same thing,” Hailey said.
But others were more barbed. The new first vice president, Stanley Drewery, took aim at the whistleblowers in his acceptance speech, comparing SEANC to a mighty tree that takes years to grow.
“We have people every day chopping at our tree, but their ax is too dull,” Drewery said.
In a speech before the vote, Hailey 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. Everything I did was to protect the organization.
Ross Hailey, new SEANC president
“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.”
SEANC is a $14.5 million organization with 53,000 active and retired public employees. SEANC’s primary mission is advancing the bread-and-butter issues of state employees at the General Assembly: pay, health care, pensions, and due process rights in hiring and firing.
The scandal at SEANC started to crack open in late 2014 when Anthony and Betty Jones, another former board member, shared their concerns and documents with The N&O. They had attempted to question Cope about his spending, they said. They were both voted off the board last September.
In January, The N&O met with Cope and members of SEANC’s executive committee and presented evidence that Cope appeared to have used SEANC funds on flight lessons, home landscaping, entertainment and eyebrow waxing, among other items.
Hailey said then that he was concerned and promised that “I am going to get to the bottom of this.”
SEANC President Wayne Fish appointed an investigative committee with one member: Hailey. The investigative committee immediately found evidence that there was no misappropriation of funds, according to a letter from SEANC’s executive committee.
Over the next month, Fish and SEANC’s executive committee relied on Hailey’s investigation to release letters that unequivocally stated, “We have found no misappropriations of funds and no improprieties by Dana.”
After The N&O published its story, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman opened an investigation, and Cope promptly resigned.
A forensic audit found that Cope had fabricated an invoice to conceal SEANC funds spent on landscaping at his home. The audit pegged his misspending at almost a half-million dollars in a 28-month span. The grand jury indictment alleged that $570,000 was stolen over four years and used for unauthorized purchases including flight lessons, vacation trips and home appliances.
After Friday’s vote, Anthony, the losing candidate, said he wished Hailey well.
Hopefully he will get the organization back on track and will keep it on track.
Art Anthony, SEANC whistleblower
“Hopefully he will get the organization back on track and will keep it on track,” Anthony said.
In an interview later, he worried about disaffected rank-and-file SEANC members who were unhappy with the board’s handling of the Cope investigation. He said he hoped Bailey’s election would not prompt members to leave the organization.
“I’m not optimistic about this,” Anthony said.