Thursday I did something I hope no other SPJ president will ever have to do. Testify against a former SPJ board member who embezzled money from a local SPJ chapter.
I flew to Oklahoma on Wednesday to attend yesterday’s sentencing of Scott Cooper, former region 8 director and secretary-treasurer of the Oklahoma Pro SPJ chapter, in Cleveland County District Court. In 2012, Cooper confessed to stealing $43,220 from the chapter over a period of several years. According to Cooper, he used the money to cover gambling debts and pay personal bills.
In his court testimony, Cooper said a “slight gambling problem” escalated into a large gambling problem due to his own stupidity and bad judgment. His theft was discovered when a series of bad checks bounced following the chapter’s annual awards banquet. Once confronted, the former national board member confessed to falsifying the chapter’s financial records to cover up his crime. He offered the chapter $500 a month to repay his debt, but never followed through.
During his testimony, Cooper said, “I deeply, deeply want to repay what I have taken. My number one priority is to pay this money back.”
Despite that claim, in the 21 months since Cooper was caught, he had not repaid any of the stolen money until Thursday when he produced a check for $3,000. In addition, Cooper just started counseling and community service in October 2014, perhaps in an attempt to mitigate his punishment. Cooper said he attended Gambler’s Anonymous weekly for a while, but said it was too hard to make the meetings given his work schedule at the Farmers Insurance National Document Center in Oklahoma City where he is a document clerk making less than $20,000 a year. Cooper said he resumed the GA meetings three months ago.
Following closing arguments, Judge Greg Dixon deliberated and imposed the following sentence:
- 10 year deferred probation, without a felony conviction
- 4 consecutive weekends in county jail, beginning Nov. 14 (Fri., 6 pm to Sun., 6 pm)
- Monthly payments of $350 beginning Dec. 15 for 10 years
- Eight additional hours of work or community service every weekend, beginning Dec. 8
- Prohibited from visiting any casinos
- Payment of all court fees and service fees related to his sentence
- Miscellaneous standard probation provisions (can’t leave the state without permission, possess a firearm, consume alcohol, etc.)
If Cooper violates any of those terms, he will return to court to face the consequences which could include prison time and a felony conviction. Some have asked why Cooper wasn’t charged with a felony. The rationale behind that decision is Cooper would be required to report a felony to his employer, likely resulting in his termination and making it difficult to find another job. Without employment, Cooper would be unable to repay his substantial debt to SPJ.
In his closing statement, Judge Greg Dixon told Cooper he was prepared to impose a harsher sentence, but changed his mind after hearing chapter attorney Bob Sheets’ statement that his main priority was repayment, not punishment. Sheets wanted to create an environment for Cooper to remain gainfully employed, so he could stick to a repayment plan to make the chapter whole.
Judge Dixon said he wouldn’t impose counseling on Cooper, because he was not convinced that Cooper had made the choice yet to turn his life around and, until he did, counseling would be of no value.
“You need to toughen up,” Judge Dixon said. “You’ve got a family to take care of.”
This is the official record of the case. I have also made an official statement on behalf of SPJ, much of which comes from the statement I gave during my court testimony. Formal statement aside, I’d like to share my observations.
It was a sad moment for SPJ. Cooper stole more than $43,000 from us. He damaged our reputation and wasted valuable time and resources that could have been better spent fulfilling our mission. He embarrassed an organization that fights for openness, transparency and accountability and damaged our credibility. While many members, volunteers and supporters stood behind us, our critics called us hypocrites.
I first met Cooper when we served as regional directors on the national board together in 2010 or 2011. I remember the first board meeting he missed because he’d been caught. With Cooper’s board seat ominously empty, the SPJ leadership team explained the theft, how it occurred and what SPJ could do about the situation. Imagine 20 jaws, give or take, drop in unison, shocked that a seemingly engaged, passionate journalist could steal from us – right under our noses. It was devastating and far reaching. SPJ went into damage control mode, and we began formulating best practices to prevent this type of incident from occurring again.
When I heard that a sentencing hearing for Cooper had been scheduled, I knew I had to attend. I wanted to support the local chapter, but I also wanted to look him in the eye and tell him how he’d violated his fiduciary responsibility to put SPJ first. When I testified before the court, I had that chance. I gave him my “don’t mess with Mom” stare that every parent reserves for such occasions. To his credit, Cooper made eye contact and seemed to listen.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half hearing, I felt a mix of emotions – anger, sadness, betrayal, disappointment and, surprisingly, pride. I was angry that Cooper could do this to SPJ, but also that he seemed smug and unremorseful. There was little evidence he had made any attempt to change his life and make this right. Instead, I heard a series of explanations and excuses, none of which helped to absolve his theft.
Cooper complained that he’d lost his career in journalism, and he was in a job that didn’t utilize his education and that required an hour commute each way. He blamed the state for allowing casinos, he complained he had other bills to pay besides SPJ (though his wife had bought a car since he pled guilty), and he brought up his autistic daughter’s need for stability several times. Cooper even recounted a story of having to cancel his family’s plans to attend a holiday party last year, because someone affiliated with the local chapter would also be in attendance. One of his daughters had bought a new dress for the party and was devastated she couldn’t attend the party because of her father. Looking past the complaints, I didn’t see a man willing to take responsibility for his behavior; I saw someone who wanted to place the blame elsewhere.
Based on both fact and emotion, I agree with the judge. I don’t see that Cooper has made a real attempt to transform his life, to show remorse or to make this situation right. Prior to yesterday, he made no attempt to repay the chapter and blamed the chapter’s lack of a response to his offer of monthly payments as his excuse for not having paid them anything. Despite his words, I saw no sign of remorse…fear maybe, but he wasn’t even resigned to the fact he was going to jail or would spend the next 10 years of his life working hard to pay the chapter back. He is sitting in jail this morning as I post this. Perhaps this will be the wake-up call he needs.
On the plus side, I was so proud to be an SPJ member and to serve the organization as president. Seeing how the local chapter worked together to right a wrong was inspiring. Accepting responsibility for their part in Cooper’s deception, board members combed through the bank records, check book and falsified treasurer’s reports to calculate the extent of the damage. They banded together to get through a difficult situation. Chapter president Jaclyn Cosgrove testified on the chapter’s behalf, and past and present board members including M. Scott Carter and Carol Cole-Frowe were in attendance.
I was also proud when the assistant DA, the chapter attorney and the judge all commented on the good work that SPJ does and how it is important to repay the money so the chapter can continue to provide education and training, offer scholarships and do journalism advocacy work.
Though a harsher sentence could have been imposed, I feel justice was done. For the next 10 years, Cooper will have to work incredibly hard to meet the court’s conditions or risk even harsher punishments. He will have to face himself every day and remind himself that this was a choice – his choice.
At the same time, the Oklahoma Pro SPJ chapter can rebuild and other SPJ chapters can learn from this experience. I hope Cooper can do the same with the second chance he has been given. It is up to him to decide what he does with it.