SEANC’s Dana Cope Under Fire

UPDATE: Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman has requested that the SBI conduct a criminal inquiry into the matter.

UPDATE 2: Dana Cope resigned two days later.

SEANC’s Dana Cope Under Fire

SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope is back in the news with a lengthy and seemingly thorough investigative report by News & Observer reporter Joe Neff.

Among the claims are that Cope, who runs the organization that represents tens of thousands of state employees in North Carolina, misallocated funds from SEANC for remodeling and landscaping work at his Raleigh home, and that he used the funds to finance his flight instruction a flight school based in Morrisville. Also there’s a bogus memo that neither Cope nor SEANC will explain.

Background

You’ll recall that in 2013, Cope came under fire from then-Wake County Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman for a program called Purchasing Power.

That program was criticized by Freeman for overcharging members of SEANC for consumer products that were purchased on a type of lay-away program. It turns out that SEANC made hundreds of thousands in fees paid back from the Atlanta-based company. These fees, critics claimed, were made on the backs of SEANC members who ended up with overpriced consumer electronic prices courtesy of the Purchasing Power program.

Last spring, following the criticism of SEANC by Freeman, SEANC’s political action committee EMPAC sent out mailers supporting Freeman’s Democratic primary opponent, and accusing Freeman of incompetence. I wrote about these attacks at the time, which were later covered by WRAL and criticized by retired Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby who called the attacks “scurrilous” and “deceptive and dishonest.” Bob Geary of Indy Week chimed in.

In spite of Cope’s efforts, Lorrin Freeman handily won the primary and then ultimately the general election.

Current Allegations

First, it should be noted that Dana Cope has denied impropriety and has chalked the current allegations up to the “brutal” politics within SEANC.

The source of at least some of the allegations is former SEANC treasurer Betty Jones who seems to have at least some proof, including cancelled checks she apparently provided to The News & Observer. The article starts off with the following lede, and gets worse and worse:

In March 2014, the State Employees Association of North Carolina wrote a check for nearly $19,000 to Perspective Concepts LLC, a defunct computer company in Washington, D.C.

According to Neff’s reporting, a phony memo was used to justify the expense. In addition, Cope took flight instruction lessons:

Spent at least $8,000 on flight lessons for Cope and has $13,000 on deposit with the same aviation training firm; Cope says it allows him to fly with a flight instructor and to travel cheaply and efficiently on SEANC business.

Neff pulls no punches: “In six interviews with The News & Observer, Cope said he has done nothing wrong.” (Emphasis added.) Why it takes six interviews to clear this up is beyond me.

Flight Training Paid for by SEANC

Neff focuses in on the flight training:

As treasurer, Jones had a practice of signing checks on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she went to the SEANC office. She began looking at large checks that carried her signature dated on other days of the week, or large checks with the names of vendors unfamiliar to her. She came across an August 2014 payment for $15,000 made out to ‘Blue Line LLC’ paid from the retiree recruitment fund; she obtained a copy of the check from the State Employees’ Credit Union. The address on the check matched Blue Line Aviation, a flight training school in Morrisville. An earlier August 2013 check to Blue Line for $6,400 was paid from staff training funds. ‘No one told me that my signature stamp would be used on a check for flight school,’ Jones said. ‘Our president is doing something with Blue Line that the members don’t know anything about.’

SEANC paid for thousands of dollars worth for flight lessons. Flight instruction in a Diamond DA-40 is roughly $200/hour. These payments were made and Cope participated in flight instruction for nearly a year and a half with SEANC money before Cope even got SEANC board approval. According to The N&O, “Cope told SEANC’s executive committee about the flight lessons only after The N&O inquired about them in January.”

Cope and a plane dealer named John Armstrong offer a couple of justifications. First is Armstrong, who sells Diamond airplanes, saying that “it is the most cost effective” means of transportation and that the Diamond planes use less fuel than an SUV and “almost fly themselves.” Armstrong was someone who was at the flight school’s events, and was a salesman who attempted to sell me a Diamond. I’m familiar with his marketing.

Then there’s Cope saying that he’s not making much progress toward a pilot’s certificate. He did get his student pilot certificate in August 2013. It would be odd to get that certificate and not solo (fly the plane on one’s own under the direction of a flight instructor who signs you off and remains on the ground) in the intervening 16 months.

Taking Off and Landing: BS Detection

Is SEANC paying for Cope’s Son’s Flight Instruction?

First, I briefly flew (about 20 hours of flight time) with the same flight school that received these SEANC payments. In fact, in August 2013, early in my training, I went on a scheduled outing to Ocracoke (W95) with, among a bunch of other student pilots, Dana Cope and his teenage son. We all flew down to Ocracoke on a Saturday to get burgers at Howard’s Pub. I recall all of the student pilots were accompanied by flight instructors in a bunch of different planes.

This was early in my training and I was in a Cessna 182 retractable gear that had an issue with its alternator that required us to cut our trip short. I didn’t know who Dana Cope was at the time, and don’t recall ever speaking to him at the time. My recollection is that Cope flew in a Diamond DA-40 (N970DS) with a flight instructor.

The planned trip went from RDU to Ocracoke (W95) where the group of about 20 got burgers and soft drinks at Howard’s Pub, and then continued onward to First Flight/Kitty Hawk (FFA) and then up to New Bern before making its way back to RDU. (My plane was having mechanical difficulties so we ended up flying back toward RDU after Ocracoke.)

Cope’s son was also taking flight instruction at the time and flew with his own flight instructor in a two-person Diamond DA-20. I recall making that observation because his son was so young – too young to get a private pilot certificate, but still old enough to take flight instruction – and I was envious about being able to start flight instruction so early in life.

Were SEANC funds used to pay for Cope’s son to take flight instruction?

Next, assuming none of the money was used to pay for his son’s flight instruction, SEANC has spent about $8,000 to finance Cope’s flight instruction. The hourly rate to rent the Diamond DA-40 was conservatively $200. Cope may have gotten discounts for paying upfront, but that is a fair estimate of the hourly cost, including a flight instructor.

Diamonds are new planes, and are more expensive than Cessnas because most Cessnas in flight school operation are 20 to 30 years old.

At $200/hr, SEANC has paid for what I’d estimate is about 40 hours of flight instruction, but Cope says: “I don’t get to take off and land. I’m an executive guy, on the six- to seven-year plan.”

To the uninitiated, this seems plausible. To people who have been through flight training or are pilots, this is bizarre. First, the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) says that a rough total cost estimate to get a certificate is between $5,000 and $9,000. A sport pilot certificate will be closer to $5,000. A private pilot certificate will be closer to $9,000 or $10,000.

Paying $8,000 and still not getting to take off and land is, in my opinion, absurd. Flying in Visual Flight Rules is comparatively easy. It’s the taking off and landing that is comparatively difficult. I was taking off and landing planes with the first 8 hours of instruction. I’m not especially gifted.

Is SEANC Overpaying for Flight Instruction?

Second, if my estimates are correct, then Cope has more than enough time in the plane to solo and may even have enough to get his private pilot certificate. As AOPA explains, the minimum number of flight instruction hours (including solo time) is usually 40 hours. (I had more than 100 hours in my plane before getting my private pilot certificate, but that is very much on the high end. I also, overall, probably spent a fraction on a per-hour basis than SEANC has for Cope.)

The fact that Cope has not solo-ed yet, which would require him to “get to take off and land,” means something is fishy. Either the flight instruction is so poor that Cope doesn’t feel he can safely take off and land the plane. (The flight instruction I received at the same flight school was generally good, if expensive.) Or Cope has dragged out his flight instruction to such an extent that, by the time he has follow-up lessons, he forgets what he has learned from the previous lesson.

When I began flight instruction, I was encouraged to take at least two flight lessons a week so as to make progress. Has Cope not even taken his written private pilot exam? Has he filed his IACRA to take his check ride? Some investigation would be helpful to find out why, assuming this is a valid use of SEANC resources, SEANC is paying so much for so little. You’d think a guy using other people’s money to get flight instruction would do it within some kind of reasonable budget.

Is SEANC planning to pay another $13,000?

Does SEANC plan to pay another $13,000 or even $30,000 toward Cope’s flight instruction? According to The N&O, SEANC appears to have a balance of $13,000 of credit with the flight school. Does SEANC plan to pay for the next 6 to 7 years of Cope’s flight instruction? If so, given that Cope has spent roughly $8,000 of SEANC’s money in the past 16 months, that works out to be about $5,000 a year, or an additional $30,000 to $35,000. That’s an enormous amount of money to learn how to fly a single engine plane.

For that kind of money, Cope could be well on his way to getting his Airline Transport Certificate and then he can go fly as a certificated pilot for a regional carrier!

I suppose anything is possible, but in my opinion spending 6 to 7 years to get a private pilot certificate is a waste of money and time. Something is wrong.

Are Diamond DA-40s that great?

Diamond DA-40s have their fans, including salesman John Armstrong who said that they are more cost effective than an SUV. But Diamonds, in addition to being expensive, tend to float, and with poor training, such floating can lead to incidents and accidents.

Diamond DA 40 N970DSN970DS (click here), one of the DA-40s that the flight school would’ve trained Dana Cope in, had an incident on November 28, 2013 in which the “pilot landed long, bounced approximately 4-5 feet and almost ran out of runway. Aircraft departed the runway to the side striking a taxiway sign with the left wing and came to rest in a ditch alongside the runway.”

A Diamond – either that aircraft or another operated by the same flight school – suffered another issue involving on runway 32 at RDU later the next year. I can find no NTSB report about that latter incident. But my understanding is that the Diamond landed long on the runway resulting in damage to the aircraft.

My understanding is that Dana Cope was not the pilot in either incident, which would make sense given that he doesn’t “get to take off or land.”

Nonetheless, Diamonds float, and poorly trained student pilots or single engine pilots used to the more forgiving Cessna 172, may have trouble landing the plane. Why it should take more than 3,000 feet (RDU Runway 32 is 3500 feet long) is beyond me. The notion that these planes are akin to flying a Google-guided car is a bunch of marketing nonsense.

Contrary to the assertion in the article, Diamond DA-40s do not fly themselves, and if they did, it wouldn’t take $21,000 or even $8,000 to learn how to fly one.

Is Piloting Your Own Plane Cost Effective

It depends. While the total cost of ownership is open to debate, paying $8,000 to learn how to fly a plane Cope doesn’t even get to take off or land is not cost efficient in the least, especially if he’s on the 6 to 7 year plan to get a pilot certificate. Who spends 6 years to get a certificate?

At that cost, it’d be worthwhile to simply have someone ferry him to locations around North Carolina or DC. A commercial airline ticket to DC costs between $200 and $400 round trip. Flying a private plane to DC costs about twice that, even with no flight instructor.

Diamonds are among the more costly options, however, given than they are so new and are usually equipped with glass panel cockpits which give them a futuristic, if, in my view, confusing feel.

I own a Cherokee 140 and it is certainly been a boon to me. It cruises about 20 to 30 knots slower than a DA-40 depending on the configuration. Even a 2009 Diamond costs more than $200,000 used. A new Diamond DA-40 will cost more than $400,000.

Diamonds are not cheap planes. My Cherokee was purchased for less than $40,000, and while it’s not as polished – no new leather and no glass cockpit – as a Diamond, it’s safe, handles better, and is more cost effective. It’s a great plane purchased at less than a tenth of the cost of a new Diamond DA-40.

Diamonds are slick, though, from a styling perspective. So maybe that’s what SEANC is paying for.

Unanswered Questions

There are plenty of unanswered questions, including why the association’s state employees, many of whom are underpaid, are paying for this.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.