Curious audits adding up for SEANC and Cope

Audit finds that Ex-SEANC leader Dana Cope misspent $500K.
Audit finds that Ex-SEANC leader Dana Cope misspent $500K. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

There is much to be worried about in an audit that covers spending by Dana Cope, the resigned director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

But the biggest worry may be that some documents that could have been pertinent to the excessive and questionable spending by Cope have been shredded. A computer hard drive also has been removed from the association’s offices. What more enlightenment might be coming if those issues did not exist?

The audit did find some maddening things. Mitch Leonard, who took over as director in February, said in a letter that Cope repeatedly used SEANC credit for his own benefit. The spending and credit card transactions by Cope added up to nearly half a million dollars.

Joseph Qubain, a SEANC board member and employee of the state Department of Transportation, put it mildly if anything in his reaction to the audit: “We were shocked at the amount. Remember, this is only 28 months’ worth.” That’s right. The period of time covered by the audit is only a fraction of Cope’s 15-year tenure.

Since The News & Observer’s Joseph Neff wrote the first stories about Cope’s spending earlier this year, SEANC has made changes, dismissed some employees and apologized to the two whistle-blowers who helped bring Cope’s performance into question who essentially were run off of positions of importance with the organization.

But there are miles to go.

Deep problems in SEANC leadership beyond Cope were in evidence when members of the group’s executive committee came to The News & Observer to ask the newspaper not to publish stories about Cope. When the stories came out, the head of the organization said they weren’t true, and then SEANC’s executive committee said it had found no misappropriation of funds or improprieties by Cope.

The organization replaced Cope with Leonard after the former resigned, and Leonard has been more candid. But clearly all members of the executive committee should be removed, and SEANC needs to continue to refine a new plan, an organizational plan, for leadership.

After all, given the relatively short period covered by the SEANC audit, who knows what’s coming?

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who was criticized by Cope when she was a candidate for that office, requested a criminal investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, which is ongoing. Among the things of interest to the SBI: whether other potential evidence has been destroyed.

Freeman says she intends for her office to do “everything that we can to make sure Mr. Cope is held accountable and that justice is done in this case.”

Cope was aggressive in his office, which he doubtless viewed as helping to represent the membership, and he didn’t hesitate to use his position to criticize people such as State Treasurer Janet Cowell, whose office manages pension funds for public employees. On that, Cope was just plain wrong, as Cowell has done a good job handling those funds.

At this point, it’s simply imperative that the SBI hold nothing back in its investigation and that it get to the rock bottom of what happened here, from a phony invoice to charges for eyebrow waxing to, according to the recent audit, the $14,000 in SEANC funds Cope spent taking his wife and son to China.

Cope could be outspoken and abrasive, and that’s not something that necessarily made him an effective leader for the 55,000 members of SEANC, which includes current and retired state employees. His attorneys, Roger Smith Sr. and Roger Smith Jr., presumably will have a case to make for their client when the time comes. But much remains to be learned.