After Dana Cope, SEANC needs a new board

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, has resigned following a News & Observer report on questionable spending patterns. An investigation will follow. But the top priority of Mitch Leonard, a SEANC official who will head the group in the interim, is to arrange for a new election for the group's board membership.

For Cope performed irresponsibly, at least, and the board that should have been overseeing him has had its eyes closed. It failed the 55,000 members of the group.

The News & Observer's Joseph Neff reported Sunday that Cope's spending practices, which blurred lines between his personal spending and SEANC's expenditures, are under fire from former SEANC treasurer Betty Jones and others. Cope labeled them disgruntled former associates.

But records examined by Neff indicate there are legitimate questions, to put it mildly, about Cope's handling of finances. For one thing, Cope was allowed wide latitude on his use of SEANC credit cards. He bought tickets to touring Broadway shows, spent $1,700 in a Las Vegas nightclub and did a wine tour in California. Cope says his expenses were to advance SEANC business. The wine tour, he says, landed the organization a $400,000 grant.

Cope's answers to questions about how he reimbursed SEANC were inconsistent, Neff reported. One major question raised by the report regards expenses for irrigation work at SEANC's office. In March 2014, SEANC wrote a check for nearly $19,000 to Perspective Concepts LLC, a defunct computer company in Washington. But the check was cashed by Perspective Landscape Concepts, a new Apex company that was also working at Cope's home.

Cope cited the need for emergency irrigation work for SEANC. A memo, however, justified the check as being for computer work. The owner of the computer company says he closed it in 2003 and never worked in North Carolina. And while there was irrigation work done at SEANC, it was done by a Garner company for $685.25.

Since last March, Cope has signed off on SEANC checks for a total of $109,078.50 to Perspective Landscape Concepts or its owner, Perry Pope. Cope said that he paid for the work at his house and that the work for SEANC was legitimate. But he didn't offer an adequate explanation.

For her part, Jones said she and her allies were pushed off the SEANC board because she started raising questions about Cope.

One question had to do with SEANC's paying for flying lessons for Cope, to the tune of at least $8,000, with more money for lessons on deposit. Cope says the lessons make it possible for him to fly on SEANC business with an instructor and save the organization money. That's a shaky justification for private flying lessons, at best.

The spending patterns, the seemingly contradictory explanations of landscaping and irrigation expenses, Cope's use of a credit card designated for SEANC business for personal expenses - these things speak of an organization under the absolute control of one person, a person who believed he should have final authority over all decisions. They also speak of a weak board.

Cope also flexed what he apparently viewed as his political muscle to attack Janet Cowell, the state treasurer, over her handling of the state pension fund, though that fund is sound and well-managed. He also spoke out critically of Lorrin Freeman, the former Wake County clerk of court, during her campaign for Wake County district attorney.

Freeman has criticized SEANC's payroll deduction purchasing program with Purchasing Power, a company that sells computers and other goods to state employees through payroll deduction. Jones, the former SEANC treasurer, said there are better prices offered by other vendors. SEANC gets revenue of at least $288,000 from Purchasing Power in commissions and fees.

Cowell remains state treasurer. Freeman was elected district attorney. In what must be a painful irony for Cope, Freeman has called for an SBI inquiry into SEANC's expenditures under Cope. She is right in doing so.