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AAF Uncovers Navy General Counsel Nominee’s Past Pay-to-Play Scheme and Ethics Concerns Ahead of Sen

Sean Coffey’s Ethics Violations Should Disqualify Him from Top Legal Position with the U.S. Navy


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The American Accountability Foundation (AAF) has filed a formal complaint with the New York Attorney Grievance Committee against the U.S. Navy General Counsel nominee, John P. “Sean” Coffey, after uncovering previous ethics violations and a potential pay-to-pay scheme through his past position as Co-Managing Partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman LLP (BLB&G).


Through their research, AAF discovered that Coffey engaged in a multi-year scheme of pay-to-play campaign donations, charitable contributions, and other benefits to elected officials to whose agencies Coffey and his firm were soliciting for business or seeking continued representation. Some of the individuals who Coffey and his firm made donations to were later convicted of corruption charges.


AAF President Tom Jones said, “Coffey’s long history of illicit, pay-to-play political donations should be sanctioned by the State of New York and immediately disqualify him from serving as the Navy’s principal legal and ethics advisor. While Coffey’s nomination follows the troubling pattern of unacceptable political appointees from the Biden administration, we should all remain committed to ensuring those who serve in the top levels of our government are held to the highest ethical and professional standards.”


AAF’s formal complaint to the Attorney Grievance Committee at the Supreme Court of the State of New York can be found here.


Specifically, AAF requests a sanction by the Grievance Committee due to his violations of Rule 7.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct to wit: “A lawyer shall not compensate of give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or obtain employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in employment by a client.” The Rules of Professional Conduct make it clear that this prohibition extends to campaign contributions to lawmakers who control hiring decisions for the donor attorney.


A long-time liberal activist, Coffey’s donations to both Democrats and Republicans controlling state pension funds suggests a deeper, unethical motive in selecting candidates to receive donations. Among the questionable political donations outlined in the report are:

  • $30,000 in donations to the Kilpatrick Civic Fund (KCF), which was promoted as an educational fund but was more realistically a personal slush fund for corrupt former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick;

  • Thousands in seemingly random, out-of-state donations to both Democrats and Republicans in the Ohio Attorney General’s office, who are charged with selecting outside counsel for pension matters relevant to BLB&G;

  • Similar out-of-state patterns in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Minnesota, which did not continue after his business interests shifted;

  • Thousands in donations from Coffey, his wife, and his firm to Rhode Island General Treasurer Frank Caprio just five days after Caprio told state investment officials he would soon be seeking new legal representation for the state’s legal fund. In this instance, Caprio even returned the donation due to allegations of impropriety.

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