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In Democratic race, Coffey cites courtroom results, public service

By Peter McDermott


Vote for Sean Coffey - he knows where the bodies are buried.

That's part of the Bronx-born candidate's pitch in the crowded field for the Democratic nomination for attorney general of New York State.

"The next attorney general has to be knowledgeable about Wall Street.

I know Wall Street is a critically important industry. It's not evil. It's not the enemy," said Coffey, the eldest of a family of seven children born to parents from Counties Cork and Kerry. "But you do need to keep it growing by keeping it honest."

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Coffey, who spent eight years as a naval officer and five as a prosecutor in New York, made his name as the lead attorney in the WorldCom $6-billion securities litigation, which resulted in directors and others having to pay out from their own personal funds.

Bloomberg Markets magazine labeled him "Wall Street's New Nemesis," while the Wall Street Journal declared: "It's Coffey time."

He recovered several more billion dollars in other cases while working with the firm Bernstein, Litowitz, Berger & Grossmann, which represents large institutional investors like New York State Common Retirement Fund and Teachers Retirement System,

He recalled a key moment in the WorldCom case, a turning point that made victory inevitable. "When the banks sold $11 billion worth of WorldCom bonds to the public, the offering materials did not even include a risk-factor section, which indicated to the public that these are as a safe an investment as you can have," Coffey said.

At the same time, detailed memos were being written inside the banks arguing just why WorldCom should not be lent anything. "I put those two documents side by side - you could not reconcile them," he recalled. "They were going to be killed at trial over that."

Coffey, who is married to former actor Anne Churchill and has three teenage children, became familiar with the concept of a credit default swap when studying one financial institution.

"The bank never lost any money, or very little, but because they bought this insurance they made a ton of money, and then there was a fight in the bank over who gets credit for the money they made.

"And there was an email that said: 'When things turn out this great, we deserve the credit,'" he recalled. "At the same time 40,000 people were losing their jobs -- the telecom bubble was bursting.

"I was appalled at the blithe way that people making millions of dollars were willing to look the other way to make a few more million," he said.

Immigrant success

In the 1990s, Coffey left the law firm of Latham & Watkins, where as counsel and partner he had defended Fortune 500 firms. "I wanted to represent people like my mom and dad," said the 54-year-old lawyer.

"I know how tough it can be," Coffey said. He grew up in a family that relied on unemployment benefit from time to time.

His father, a native of Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, was a 50-year member of Local 608 of the Carpenters Union. He died two and a half years ago. "He gave me his [union] pin on his deathbed," he said.

His father's was a tough life spent working outside on highways and bridges such as the Verrazano. He told his eldest that he'd lived the American Dream. "I must have looked a little skeptical, thinking how hard his life was," Coffey said. "No," his father explained. "You come here with a 4th-grade education and you send seven children to college."

"They poured their money into our education," he said of his parents, who raised the family on Long Island. All went to parochial schools and the boys continued in Catholic education afterwards. "It's not a call I would have made," Coffey said about the favoritism in the latter case.

His mother was one of a family of nine from West Cork. "Seven of her siblings still live in Cork and five of them in the same parish," Coffey said. When he was 9, he went for the first time to his uncle's farm, which overlooked the bay at Courtmacsherry. He spent seven consecutive three-month summers there.

"Every time I left, I thought it would be the last time I'd ever be there," he recalled. "It was very emotional."

Later, as a young officer and personal military assistant to Vice President George Bush, he was on Air Force Two as it took off bound for Africa after a refueling stop at Shannon Airport. As the plane flew over Courtmacsharry, he remembered, "I made the Bushes get out of their chairs and look out the window."

Law student

Soon after Bush entered public life in 1946, he began to write thank-you notes to people he'd met in the course of his day. One of Coffey's tasks was to type up the day's list and have it reviewed by the vice-president. It's a practice that Coffey himself has taken up.

As a first-time candidate, he reflected on those years working with a future president. "I remember when I was with Mr. Bush I thought it was so hard to do what he was doing," he said. "I have very fond feelings for him, but I felt at times that he found himself saying things that he preferred not to have to say."

Coffey got that prestigious assignment despite his Democratic politics. He's an admirer of all of the Kennedys. "My two heroes are Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy came easy. King came later as I read more about his life," he said. "When you read at the time what he was saying, it was so perfectly American."

While stationed in Washington, Coffey began to study at Georgetown University Law Center at night. He won several academic awards, was an editor of the Georgetown Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. Even as he was embarking on a new career, however, he wasn't ending the old one. He'd served 30 years when he finally retired from the navy in 2004 - including the four at the academy at Annapolis and the 18 as a reservist.

Coffey pointed out that he was only required to serve five years as a full-time officer, but stayed on for another three.

"I love the navy and I love my country," he said. "It's that Irish public service DNA that we have."

It's a central theme of his campaign.

"I'm leaving the comfort of private life to do the right thing," said Coffey, who has promised that he will not seek higher office afterwards.

"We need people to do their bit for a few years," he said.

After he gave up his job in October, he was surprised at how easily he took to campaigning. "I'm enjoying it because I'm Mary Coffey's son and I'm Irish," he said. "She's my secret weapon with her West Cork accent."

Coffey added. "I'm loving it."

The Democratic Primary takes place on Sept. 14. The other candidates are Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Eric Dinallo, State Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and State Senator Eric Schneiderman.

 

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