Former SEANC director: 'I am a thief'

Posted November 17, 2015 2:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2015 2:43 p.m. EST

— A longtime director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina pleaded guilty Tuesday to fraud charges after he used more than $570,000 of the organization's money for personal expenses.

Dana Cope was sentenced to 58 to 82 months in prison total for the two counts of obtaining property by false pretense over $100,000. He also handed SEANC a check Tuesday for $165,000 as part of his plea agreement and will participate in work-release programs to help pay off another $345,000.

"I take full responsibility for what I've done," Cope said toward the end of a two-hour court hearing. "I am truly and deeply sorry to all of the SEANC members, to the staff that I worked with and especially to my family.

"I am a thief, and I need to do what is appropriate," he said.

Cope resigned in February after 14 years in charge of SEANC when Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into spending irregularities at SEANC. The irregularities included a $19,000 check paid to a Washington, D.C., computer company that was reportedly cashed by an Apex landscaping company doing work at Cope’s Raleigh home.

SBI agent Tammy Forsythe testified Tuesday that Cope used used SEANC checks to pay for $77,000 in landscaping services, $21,400 in flying lessons and $14,000 in airfare for a family trip to China.

Forsythe also said no one at SEANC reviewed Cope's credit card statements, allowing him to list charges for shutters and screens for his home as "booklets" for the organization. Likewise, she said, a home theater system was listed on statements as "home office computer" and "office equipment," while other spending was listed as "legislative affairs" and "consulting."

Many of the hundreds of expenses Cope rang up on SEANC credit cards had no receipts attached, Forsythe said, so authorities had to contact vendors to find out what he purchased – outdoor furniture, appliances, women's clothing, a piano, food and other items.

All told, Cope paid for $457,500 in personal expenses with the credit cards and another $113,346 with SEANC checks.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens criticized board members and administrators of SEANC, which represents more than 50,000 state workers, for their lack of oversight.

"I find it as troubling and as shocking that it happened so easily and so brazenly," Stephens said.

"This is an age-old story of abuse of power and greed," Freeman said. "It was such a betrayal to (SEANC members)."

"He lost his way at some point," defense attorney Roger Smith Jr. said. "In my judgment, he is a good man who just did something wrong."

Mitch Leonard, who succeeded Cope as SEANC director, said the organization has implemented changes to its financial controls. Now, no check can be issued without proper documentation, a credit limit of $5,000 has been set and no credit card charges are allowed, outside of fuel and hotel expenses, unless approved by a supervisor.

"Undoubtedly, the announcement of a guilty plea from Mr. Cope is a newsworthy event in his legal case. SEANC’s focus, however, is on the important work of fulfilling our mission to advance and protect the interests of past, present and future state employees," Leonard said in a statement. "All the while, we continue to take all of the necessary steps – resulting from two independent investigations of our operations – to secure our organization from ever experiencing a breach of leadership trust again."