WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
All five Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination in the race to succeed Attorney General Andrew Cuomo showed up this week at a business breakfast in Midtown Manhattan hoping to break out of the pack. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Coffey scored points with the corporate crowd when he talked about the need for the next attorney general to put some muscle behind the protection of intellectual property rights.
“Intellectual property is a big industry in New York, from TV, radio, music, and I have some experience. Again, I am the only one here at the table who has been a full-time practicing lawyer for over two decades," said Coffey.
At 6-foot-4, Coffey cuts an impressive figure. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was the personal military assistant to Vice President George H. W. Bush.
“I’ve been blessed. I come from humble origins but I’ve been able to do very, very well -- not bad for a kid from the Bronx who went to law school at night and served a few years in uniform. So I can afford to do this,” Coffey said.
Coffey is investing $2 million of his own money in his campaign. Early in the 1990s, as a federal prosecutor, he put away drug kingpins. Since then he has worked as a trial attorney. As lead counsel in the WorldCom case he helped recover $6 billion for his clients, including the New York State Common Retirement Fund. Now, he's running as a political outsider.
“I am not from Albany, but I have been a prosecutor and I have been very, very aggressive with regard to corporate misconduct,” said Coffey. “We need somebody independent to come in with new authority to go after political corruption wherever it is."
He says the process must be made easier for the attorney general to bring political corruption cases, and he wants legislators – even the ones who are also lawyers – to disclose who their clients are.
“Absolutely, lawyers included and who their clients are because right now you have two options if you want to get something killed in the legislature. You can either go to the Capitol, sign in and go visit the chairman of the respective committee and everyone knows you were there, or you can go to that chairman's law firm, pay them a retainer, meet in some conference room with their ‘of counsel,’ who happens to be chairman. And maybe the bill dies and we never know about it."
After the breakfast forum, Coffey heads to a fundraiser with Minnesota Sen. Al Franken at the Yale Club. It was listed on the Associated Press Daybook schedule of events, but this reporter was politely turned away.
On the street outside the landmark club, Frank Burger, a retired MetLifer with a master’s degree in history, thought closing such an event to the press only fed public cynicism about politicians – even reformers.
“You want the truth? There is just too much money floating around to be picked up," said Burger.
Former Public Advocate Mark Green was inside at the closed event.
"You asked whether fundraisers for politicians should always be open? Answering as a journalist that I am now, as a columnist and running a radio show, absolutely,” said Green. “If you ask me as a candidate? Absolutely not."
Candidate Coffey's explanation? He says he is new to fundraising.
“As to whether the Franken event was closed or not, or how that came about, you know, I just don't know. I went to the event. It was next on my schedule,” said Coffey.
“What is the down side to having it open to the public?”
“I don't really see a downside other than it may chill, uh, I don't see a downside," said Coffey.
With ten weeks to go before voters weigh in, Coffey is working hard to get his name in circulation.
"Today I’ve got a couple of meetings this afternoon with some concerned citizens who are very upset about what's going on in Albany,” Coffey said. “And then I am actually dropping by Mark Green's apartment this afternoon for a rollout of a new TV show that I believe is going to have Arianna Huffington and Mary Matalin in it.”
Sean Coffey's biggest challenge between now and primary day, September 14, will be building up his name recognition while at the same time motivating Democratic voters to bother to turn out for a contest expected to attract just a fraction of the eligible electorate.