The courting of Cope: Behind the scenes of a $1 million withdrawal

Doug Brown

Jason M. Cope, a 1995 Kent State finance graduate, was one of four defendants required to pay more than $19 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for selling 190 investors fraudulent stocks worth $8.7 million 12 years ago. His broker license was permanently revoked because of it.

Cope, who had previously given about $13,000 over a four-year period to the Kent State Athletic Department, now runs two golf courses under the company Copeland Group, LLC, and emails show he is still heavily involved in the stock market.

He pledged to transfer $1 million in stocks to the athletic department on March 17, 2011, according to emails sent to the athletic department. The university didn’t publicly disclose the donation for nine months until the board officially approved it on Dec. 13.

Kent State’s Board of Trustees has given no indication it was aware of Cope’s past SEC violations when it voted unanimously to rename the basketball court “Cope Court” after he and his wife, Stacie, pledged $1 million.

“Yep… I was there for the vote,” Athletic Director Joel Nielsen reported to Matt Geis, associate athletic director and executive director for athletic advancement, and Tom Kleinlein, deputy athletic director, in an email immediately following the board’s approval. “Only question from a BOT member during the meeting was, ‘did we get enough $$ for the naming?’ … I assured them we did.”

Cope withdrew the donation on the evening of Jan. 5 — nine days before Cope Court would have become official in an elaborately planned pregame ceremony and one day after emails show Nielsen warned him about the Stater working on a story about the SEC violations.

Story Background

Stock Transfer

• Cope’s donation was to be split between the men’s basketball and men’s golf teams. Cope was the college roommate of assistant golf coach Rob Wakeling.

• The $1 million donation was to be made up of a transfer of stocks over a period of years from Cope to the university, which “may offer better tax benefits than a gift of cash,” according to the university website — a common practice for donors.

• Although Cope committed to the donation last March, the university received the stock information on Jan. 3. He often didn’t respond to emails from Geis and KSU Foundation employees inquiring about sending his stock information. It left athletic department employees wondering for months about when they could start their projects, and where Cope wanted to designate his money be spent.

Spending the money

• The first priority for spending Cope’s donation was to attract basketball recruits through a $50,000 basketball office upgrade, according to a November email from Geis to Cope.

• Three months earlier, Nielsen, Geis and Kleinlein began to discuss where the money would go. Kleinlein was an advocate for the basketball office upgrade “to show some emphasis in that area similar to what we have done in football.”

• Nielsen, on the other hand, wasn’t sold on the idea, saying the pressure for the upgrades “is partly a carryover from Geno bitching to the staff about not getting anything,” he wrote about former basketball coach Geno Ford, with whom the university opened a lawsuit after he was hired away by Bradley last March. “Also, the urgency from the basketball coaches is specifically tied to doing the work for football… just wait until other sports start chirping.”

• He suggested Cope’s money go to “paying off some of our accumulated debt,” an idea that Geis said Cope wouldn’t approve.

• “If we continue to have a prolonged recession, which appears to be the case, we’ll have to be cognizant of operating budget money and our ability to cover any funds that might go away in future annual budgets – we are not in control of 80% of our revenue,” Nielsen wrote. “It’s great to build new things, but we still need to pay the bills each June 30.”

• Three months later, Geis asked Cope to consider the office upgrades first.

Publicizing Cope

• The athletic department and division of institutional advancement staff wanted Cope’s donation to receive maximum publicity.

Geis wanted to plan for an “elaborate” ceremony for the Jan. 14 Cope Court revealing before the Bowling Green game. Geis secured 40 tickets to the game for the Copes.

• A Jan. 1 email from Alicia Gaffney, who runs athletic special events for Kent State indicated what was planned: a one minute public address announcement with the “gift introduction;” a one minute “thank you video” from golf coach Herb Page, basketball coach Rob Senderoff, and student athletes; and a one minute “introduction of Cope Family and presentation of framed jersey by Nielsen, Senderoff” and possibly Lefton. “Foam talons” would be given out to the first 500 fans.

• A September email from Valoree Vargo, director of donor services, to Geis revealed that Finn and Sokany wanted there to be an article about Cope for the December issue of Kent State magazine (“When we talked last night he was honored that we asked!!!!” responded Geis).

• The university hired Ron Kirksey, a former executive director of university communications at Kent State, to write the article for the alumni magazine — the Copes were able to review it before it went in. The December issue of Kent State magazine has not yet printed and it’s unknown if the Cope piece will still be published.

• A draft of the piece, obtained in a records request, reports that Cope worked for “financial advising and venture capital firms in Pittsburgh, New York and Beverly Hills.” It doesn’t mention his SEC violations. “We are giving to these programs because we have personal relationship with the basketball and golf coaches,” said Cope in the article.

• While emailing about the alumni magazine piece, Vargo asked Geis if Cope would speak at November’s Founders Gala, which recognizes donors to the university “to talk about his gift and why it was important for them to do this,” wrote Vargo about Cope. “It would be no more than 3-5 minutes.” Cope gave his speech at the Founder’s Gala in November.

That story was published on Jan. 6 and reposted online that evening by the Record-Courier. The Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer wrote about the withdrawal on Jan. 10.

University officials contend they were “well aware” of the donor’s SEC violations before Cope agreed to the $1 million donation.

The board approves

President Lester Lefton, Eugene Finn, vice president of institutional advancement, and Nielsen presented the “Cope Court” resolution to the Board of Trustees on Dec. 13.

The 11 trustees approved it — with no objections — in exactly two minutes. Board Chair Jacqueline Woods called the resolution “wonderful” and praised Nielsen and Finn for their “hard work on that.”

Nielsen had known about Cope’s SEC violations since at least March. None of the documents prepared for the presentation to the trustees mentioned the violations, nor did the oral presentation given that afternoon. The board has given no indication that it knew of the possibly controversial nature of the donation before voting.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said in a phone interview on Jan. 30 that too often trustees don’t ask questions and aren’t fully informed before making decisions.

“As best as I can tell in this particular case, obviously questions were raised about the donor after the announcement of the gift,” Neal explained. “That should be up to the board to determine whether that was appropriate on behalf of the institution to accept the gift.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a non-profit organization that evaluates and works with higher education leaders.

A records request for the background information drafted by athletic department and institutional advancement staff and presented to the board shows a document that did not reflect Cope’s entire past.

Under the “Alternatives and Consequences” section, it says, “There are none. The proposal would bring a degree of highly merited recognition to the Cope family for its generosity, and it is consistent with university naming policy.”

The board reacts

Board members were notified of the past of the basketball court’s namesake from the Stater’s Jan. 6 article, which was posted on and later reposted by the Record-Courier, according to emails sent to and by board members. Charlene Reed, secretary to the Board of Trustees and chief of staff to the president, sent all 11 trustees a link to the story the evening it was published.

“Whether it’s large gifts, academic quality, or athletic programs, it is essential that boards be informed and engaged and ask questions,” Neal wrote in an email to the Stater following the phone interview. “In too many places, they simply are rubber stamps, or left out in the dark.”

A Jan. 7 email from trustee Patrick Mullin to Reed asked, “What does our current policy require as far as back group checks for major gifts?”

Reed forwarded the email to Finn.

“There is no established ‘policy’ but we do research on all of our high level prospects,” Finn responded about a background check. “Keep in mind that we did know about Cope’s past but felt it was no longer an issue based on the information we had. But obviously we still do not have a clear sense of what might still be out there for the SEC.”

Finn did not respond to interview inquiries from the Stater to explain what information they had about Cope.

In a brief telephone interview with Mullin on Jan. 25, the trustee confirmed he wasn’t informed of the donor’s past before voting to approve the resolution.

“I don’t know anything about it, so I can’t really help you at all, other than what I read in the paper,” Mullin said. “I was not involved with this at all; I don’t know anything about it, and I’m not going to answer any follow-up questions.”

Mullin hung up and promptly reported the call to Reed, who sent an email to the 11 board members and Lefton with the subject “URGENT-Heads up.”

In the email, Reed warned the board members about a reporter asking about the board’s knowledge of the donor, and reminded them about “keeping with the Board’s protocol” by directing any communication to Woods, the board chair.

On Jan. 31, the Stater emailed Woods and requested an interview. The email detailed the Stater’s examination of the university officials’ email conversations, which indicated the board was unaware of Cope’s past before approving his donation.

A day later, the Stater received a response from Reed with a statement on behalf of Woods: “The submission to the Board of Trustees of the Cope Family naming gift followed all normal university practices and policies regarding donor gifts including the level of detail that was provided to the board.”

“At the end of the day, trustees are legally responsible for the academic and financial health of their organization, and they are ultimately accountable for decisions of the institution,” Neal, of ACTA, said. “If they don’t know what’s going on or haven’t insisted on a full briefing when there are complex matters, they are not doing their job.”

Despite numerous interview requests and emails sent by the Stater, the only direct response from Woods came in a Feb. 4 email: “I am out of town and agree with the statement the University has provided.”

Vincent, who was informed of the specific topics being reported for this article, did not respond to numerous requests for recorded interviews with Lefton, Nielsen, Finn, Geis and all members of the Board of Trustees. Multiple phone and email messages left for those individuals were ignored. Specific questions relevant to this story were never answered.

On Jan. 27, Vincent did offer a collective interview with Reed, Nielsen, Finn, Willis Walker, vice president for human resources and chief university counsel, and Iris Harvey, vice president for university relations and chief officer for marketing, communications and government relations, but specified the interview could not be recorded on video. The Stater declined the group interview on the grounds that it could not be video recorded but later attempted to arrange other interviews through Vincent, specifying the meetings would be taped on a digital audio recorder. Vincent did not reply to the requests for interviews but replied with the university’s statements.

The press asks questions

On Dec. 21, emails showed Tom Nader, Record-Courier sports editor, was the first to ask if the athletic department was aware of Cope’s SEC violations.

“He wasn’t really looking to do anything negative with it, just asking more if we were aware of it before moving forward with the court name,” relayed Todd Vatter, interim director of athletic communications, to Nielsen, Tom Kleinlein, deputy director of athletics, and Geis on Dec 22.

Nielsen responded and said, “We were aware of the 2000 SEC case,” and copied into the email Harvey and Tom Neumann, associate vice president of marketing and communications, Finn, Steve Sokany, senior associate vice president of institutional advancement, Lefton, Reed and Walker. “Todd, let’s get with [University Communications & Marketing] to discuss drafting a response to media should this question arise again.”

UCM worked with the athletic department and institutional advancement for the next two weeks on a statement that said they were aware of Cope’s history and still supported the court naming.

Although emails showed the Record-Courier had the information about Cope on Dec. 21, before other media, the paper didn’t publish anything until it reposted the Jan. 6 story by the Stater on its website.

“I told them to go slow on it because I didn’t know the validity of it, and I didn’t want to mess up a relationship between Kent State and a donor,” said David Dix, Record-Courier publisher, in a Jan. 26 telephone interview about why his paper held off. “I just said be very careful because if it’s wrong and if we cause them to lose a million dollars, or whatever they were going to get, they will never forgive us. Whereas a student newspaper, they will just chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.”

Hours before the Stater interviewed Nielsen for its Jan. 6 story, the university had finished drafting the statement and had it approved by Cope.

At 12:25 p.m. on Jan. 4, an email from Vatter to Nielsen, Neumann, Vincent, Iris Harvey and Geis showed what took two weeks to draft.

“The university was well aware of the past litigation involving Jason Cope before beginning the discussions about his recent gift to Kent State,” it read. “Jason is a proud alumnus and has been a loyal supporter of our athletics program for many years. He has an undeniable passion for the academic and athletic pursuits of our student-athletes.”

At 5:10 p.m., Nielsen emailed top university administrators saying he had spoken to a Stater reporter about Cope Court.

“I essentially gave him the language from our statement verbatim,” he wrote. “I’d anticipate he’ll write a story for publication next week. Nothing new came from the conversation. I also spoke directly with Jason [Cope] this afternoon to alert him of this individuals interest in the ‘story.’”

Cope withdrew his $1 million donation in a short email to Nielsen on the evening of Jan. 5.

In Print

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“Joel,” said Cope, “I am very sorry to inform you that due to an unforeseen change in my personal situation I will need to cancel my gift to the athletic department. I hope that the situation here changes going forward, and I will keep you informed if and when it does. Regretfully, Jason Cope.”

The withdrawal came a day after emails showed Nielsen saying he warned Cope about the Stater writing an article about his past SEC violations and 42 minutes after Vatter forwarded a message to Nielsen and Geis that the Stater had unsuccessfully tried to reach Cope at his home in an attempt to interview him about his past and the donation.

It was also two days after Cope approved the university statement saying it was aware of his violations and was standing behind his donation and three days after Cope sent in the information for transferring the first $60,000 of his donation.

The benefits of giving

Cope and his wife, Stacie, flew with the Kent State football team to its season opening game against Alabama on Sept. 3. In emails to Casey Wolf, assistant athletic director for football operations, Geis asked for their son to be added to the flight at the last minute.

“Sorry about the late notice but this is important,” wrote Geis at 3:45 p.m. Sept. 1, two days before the game. After Wolf answered, “I’ll do my best,” Geis reiterated the request’s importance: “Thanks. This is the guy who recently gave us $1M.”

A couple of weeks earlier, Cope indicated in an email that Geis bought his wife jewelry.

“Again, THANK YOU for the ring and necklace for Stacie,” wrote Cope. “We both love them! She is wearing hers today. I look forward to hanging with you soon.”

Cope also asked Geis for free tickets to multiple Kent State basketball games, including last year’s MAC tournament, where Geis provided four tickets and invited Cope to his suite.

Geis also indicated in an email that he was getting tickets to the NCAA basketball tournament in Houston last year.

“Final Four tickets will be sent to me mid week,” wrote Geis to Cope. “Hotel rooms are already booked in downtown Houston at the Omni — walking distance to the arena. I’ll send you all of that information.”

Giving free tickets to games is a common occurrence for large donors, said a former athletic department fundraiser who retired from the athletic advancement staff just over a decade ago.

“They are giving you a ton of money, you give them tickets in return,” he said.

Large donors regularly travel with teams to away games when there is room available.

“Somewhere like Kent State, you would want to fill up the plane rather than have it three quarters full,” he said.

But he doesn’t recall the advancement staff giving donors some of the other perks indicated in the emails between Geis and Cope.

“I don’t ever remember any gifts of any sort,” he said, referencing the jewelry and Final Four tickets. “I don’t know how that would work exactly.”

Geis never responded to phone calls and emails over a period of two weeks to explain his correspondence with Cope.

Rarely discussed

Despite the university’s statement that they were “well aware” of Cope’s SEC violations, it was never discussed in the hundreds of pages of emails from Kent State officials until they began drafting statements for the press on Dec. 22—nine days after the board of trustees approved the donation.

Within the context of the emails, no one expressed any hesitation about accepting Cope’s donation, nor was there any acknowledgment or anticipation that the public might react negatively to naming the basketball court after him.

Instead, Kent State’s communications specialists worked with athletic department and institutional advancement staff to emphasize Cope’s commitment to Kent State sports.

The only mention of the violations from Cope came in a Jan. 3 email to Geis, after he was told the Stater would be interviewing Nielsen about the donation. He attached a New York Times article that told a story about the other main figure in the fraud case, Ira Monas, and how “he acted alone,” according to Cope.

“I think it is bad to get in debate over this, and agree with the strategy to try to make it a non event and move forward,” he wrote to Geis. “As my friends know, this is a very sensitive subject with me because I am not the type of person to act unethically in any way. Thank you for your personal support, loyalty, and friendship.”

The Times article Cope sent in an effort to clear his name was published on Feb. 27, 2001. Five months later, on Aug. 14, 2001, the United States district court issued the $19 million judgment against Cope, Monas and their companies.

Cope was suspended from the National Association of Securities Dealers in 2002 because of the violations, and then officially barred in 2003 “from association with any [NASD] member in any capacity” after not challenging the suspension, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Contact Doug Brown at [email protected].

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