@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Head of state employees group resigns amid scrutiny

Posted February 10, 2015 2:16 p.m. EST
Updated February 10, 2015 7:11 p.m. EST

— The head of the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina announced his resignation as executive director Tuesday, a day after Wake County's district attorney asked for an "inquiry" into how more than $109,000 of the nonprofit's money was spent.

"In recent days, I've come to realize that, in carrying out the duties of my job, I have blurred the line between my personal life and my professional life," Dana Cope said at a brief news conference. "By tendering my resignation today, I take full responsibility of my shortcomings."

Cope had served as the executive director since April 2000.

"My hope is that this will clear the way for SEANC to continue its excellent work for all the people of North Carolina," he said.

The move comes as District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into "spending irregularities" brought to her attention by SEANC's former treasurer, Betty Jones. Jones was also a source in an article that appeared in Sunday's News & Observer about Cope's spending decisions.

Freeman says the "inquiry" is not a criminal investigation but a review as to whether there is reason to believe criminal activity has occurred.

Especially of interest, Freeman says, is a SEANC receipt for a $19,000 check to a Washington, D.C., computer company that was reportedly cashed by an Apex landscaping company doing work at Cope's Raleigh home.

The newspaper reported Cope as saying the money went toward irrigation work at SEANC's building. The article stated that there had been irrigation work but that another landscaping company performed the service at a cost of $685.25.

In a letter posted Monday on the SEANC website, the group's 12-member Executive Committee responded to the article, saying it found no wrongdoing on Cope's part.

In a statement Tuesday, the committee said it accepted Cope's resignation "with regret."

"He explained to us that, in light of recent events, his continuing to lead the State Employees Association of North Carolina would be a distraction to our mission advocating for state employees and retirees," the statement read.

State lawmakers also spoke out Tuesday on Cope's decision.

"I think that it's appropriate, that if Mr. Cope decided to step down, that clearly he wants to make sure that the issues that state employees have stay front and center with the organization," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said.

As to how Cope's departure might affect SEANC's standing with the legislature, House Minority Leader Larry Hall said he didn't believe it would.

"Their issues are clearly important issues," Hall, D-Durham, said. "I think they'll still have the respect of everyone going forward."

Meanwhile, Mitch Leonard, a lobbyist and former state employee, has been named SEANC's interim director, SEANC's executive committee said.

"There is no one we trust more to help us lead SEANC as we move forward," the committee said. "Mr. Leonard is a tireless watchdog and advocate for state employees and retirees with longstanding relationships with our members and lawmakers and other officials in state government."