Oklahoma’s Society of Professional Journalists responds to embezzler’s sentence

Norman, Oklahoma – Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Oklahoma Chapter members and the National SPJ President Dana Neuts, attended the sentencing hearing of former SPJ-OK board member Scott E. Cooper, who pleaded guilty today in Cleveland County district court for embezzling $43,220 from the state chapter.

At the request of the SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter board of directors and Cleveland County Assistant District Attorney Zach Simmons, Judge Greg Dixon sentenced Cooper to a ten year deferred sentence. He is to pay $350.00 a month until the full amount is repaid to Oklahoma SPJ. In addition he is to serve the next four weekends in Cleveland County Jail. He will also be under court supervision. Cooper presented a check for $3000,00 to Judge Dixon as initial restitution.

SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter President Jaclyn Cosgrove said she welcomed the day to obtain justice more than two years after it was first discovered that Cooper had embezzled the chapter’s funds.

“We are so thankful to the journalism community in Oklahoma and beyond for banding together to ensure the SPJ Chapter Oklahoma Pro Chapter could persevere through this challenging time,” Cosgrove said. “We are grateful today has come and we are to moving on with our organization’s goals.”

A nonprofit professional organization, Cosgrove said the national and state societies of professional journalists’ mission is “the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty.”

The funds raised by the SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter are used to sponsor annual college journalism scholarships, professional development opportunities and the chapter’s yearly awards banquet which honors the best journalistic efforts statewide.

The SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter’s board of directors was first alerted that funds were missing in April 2012, after a check made out to the Petroleum Club in Oklahoma City, which had recently catered the chapter’s awards banquet, bounced due to insufficient funds.

An internal investigation by SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter leadership found that Cooper had begun unauthorized withdrawals from the account shortly after being elected as the treasurer of the chapter in 2009.

Cooper, who had also served as the national Region 8 director over Oklahoma and Texas, later admitted through email that he had embezzled some funds before resigning from the local and national SPJ boards in May 2012. Later findings disclosed that Cooper had falsified his financial reporting to the board for years and had actually embezzled more than twice the amount than he originally disclosed.

The SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter immediately closed its bank account and began to raise funds in an effort to recover from the financial damages left by Cooper’s theft, which left the chapter approximately $8,000 in the red. Many local chapter officers and members donated money from their own savings and worked diligently to repay vendors for the chapter’s overdue expenses, as well as restore the chapter’s reputation by instituting improved accounting processes to ensure the chapter’s financial integrity and future.

A generous check for $5,000 from the Oklahoma-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism organization, plus donations from The Oklahoman and the SPJ Pro Chapter of Fort Worth, Texas, also helped the SPJ Oklahoma Pro chapter to pay off creditors and get back to work helping Oklahoma journalists and beyond.

Although the local chapter of SPJ attempted to work with Cooper so that he could repay the embezzled funds, Cooper never attempted to return the stolen money. He also told at least one chapter member that he had gambled the embezzled money away at a casino in Norman.

Cosgrove said approximately six years after Cooper first began writing checks to himself as the chapter’s local treasurer and many challenges, the SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter continues to uphold the values and principles of the organization by pushing and inspiring journalists across the state to be better.

Its bank accounts are now solidly in the black, she said.

“Scott Cooper took away so much potential for good for aspiring and working journalists,” Cosgrove said. “We believe Cooper’s repayment will be the best way to get our chapter back on its feet so we can continue moving forward in fulfilling our mission.”

Patrick B. McGuigan, publisher of The City Sentinel and editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, has served the past two years on the SPJ board of directors. He and another board member, KOSU’s Michael Cross, established a system of trustees who regular monitor the chapter’s transactions to assure transparency and accuracy. 

McGuigan credited former president M.Scott Carter and Carol Cole-Frowe with their leadership in investigating the matter.