The legacy of Dana Cope, former executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, no doubt still lingers, but it is fading into memory. For rank and file, that’s a good thing. On December 18, the 55,000-member state employee union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), announced that Robert Broome, a veteran lobbyist, would be its next executive director, effective January 1. Broome takes over the post from Mitch Leonard, who had held the position since February 2015 to succeed Cope, who had diverted more than $500,000 from association coffers to his own use. Cope would plead guilty in State Superior Court that November, seven months after the release of an SEIU-directed audit. He then was sentenced to up to 82 months in prison.
The saga of Dana Cope is familiar in the world of organized labor: A union leader behaves as though he is above accountability and eventually meets his downfall. Now 48, Cope headed the Raleigh-based State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) for 15 years. That reign ended on February 10, 2015 after the Raleigh News & Observer had published an investigative report that focused on SEANC spending. Aided by documents provided by former SEANC treasurer Betty Jones, the story revealed large amounts of spending, apparently at Cope’s direction, for items not normally associated with running a union. They included $109,000 for landscaping work, plus smaller sums for flight lessons, entertainment and eyebrow waxing. The newspaper later obtained additional records showing Cope used a union credit card for purchases at a luxury tour company, an art gallery and various clothing stores. The SEANC executive board was not happy about the expose. In fact, members tried to persuade the News & Observer from running the story. President Wayne Fish said the story was “not true,” although he could not point to specific errors. The board conducted an audit and claimed to find no misappropriations.
At Service Employees headquarters in Washington, D.C., by contrast, skepticism reigned. SEANC had affiliated with the international union back in 2008, and the latter sensed something was off. The SEIU hired a Bethesda, Md. accounting firm, Bond & Beebe, to get the full story. The audit pored over union records dating back to October 2012, the point at which Dana Cope had renegotiated a contract giving him sweeping powers over a five-year period. The evidence was damning: Cope had used the union as a personal slush fund. Unauthorized expenditures included payments to a landscaping company ($94,508); a trip to China ($14,708); private flight lessons ($31,345); home improvements (roughly $27,200); and electronics from Best Buy ($5,200). As of February 2015, the misspending tally was $494,043. If anything, this figure was on the low side because it did not take into account shredded documents and a computer hard drive removed from SEANC offices.
Meanwhile, the day after publication of the News & Observer expose, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman had initiated a criminal investigation. The probe concluded that Dana Cope’s thefts totaled $548,317.82. The embezzlement occurred over a few years, overlapping with the 2011-14 period in which Cope filed for and emerged from personal bankruptcy. Up until declaring bankruptcy, he had amassed $109,000 in credit card debt. Cope, who had resigned from his union post the day after the state probe began, would be indicted in August 2015 on two felony counts of stealing a combined $570,000. He pleaded guilty three months later. “I am here because I am a thief,” he told Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens. “I need to do what is appropriate and take full responsibility.” He then was handed a sentence of 58 to 82 months in prison, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $510,000, of which he already had paid $165,000.
Mitch Leonard, who had taken over from Cope that February, wasn’t happy. “Our former executive director, Mr. Dana Cope, grossly misused SEANC credit cards and misappropriated SEANC funds for personal gain,” he wrote. “These findings stem from a culture of submissiveness, deliberately built over time by Mr. Cope, and maintained for his own financial benefit. As a result, established financial controls were compromised, transparency thwarted and the truth denied.” Dana Cope wasn’t the only SEANC official burned in the scandal. Counsel and Chief of Staff Tom Harris, and Communications Director Toni Davis, also resigned. Rex Foster, SEANC financial director, was put on probation, as was Lynn Cote, the union’s member services director.
Now the reins of leadership are being passed again. The new executive director, Robert Broome, is taking over on January 1. Broome, whose regular job is communications director for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, also had served as interim director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “SEANC has a proud history of advocating for thousands of public servants who have dedicated their lives and careers to moving North Carolina forward,” he said in a prepared statement. “It is an honor to be entrusted with this tremendous responsibility by the members, and I am thrilled to become part of this talented team.” Union members understandably are optimistic, but some might be keeping their fingers crossed.