Who is Sean Coffey and Why Should I Care?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 3rd, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I don’t know Sean Coffey—don’t know anything about him—but if I were a resident of the State of New York, he’d have my vote for Attorney General—hands down!

Let me go on record saying that I am generally not a one-issue voter.  It just isn’t smart electoral behavior.  But I am so sick and tired of lawmakers who abuse nonprofits for their own benefit and, in so doing, damage the reputation and work environment of the millions of nonprofits who work so hard to do such great work for our communities, that on this issue, I would absolutely make an exception.

Sean Coffey, a Democratic candidate running for Attorney General, is proposing the creation of a special unit to crack down on lawmakers giving out money to their favorite charities—what he refers to as a “festering sore.”  Yikes!  Those charities that, sadly, all too frequently were founded by them or a family member, have them on the board, their staff also serving as the staff—and, yes, collecting salaries—of those charities, are an “out clause” for when they lose the next election or retire from legislative work, etc.

In Coffey’s proposal, lawmakers would voluntarily file disclosure forms—just like nonprofit board members file in accordance with their Conflict of Interest policies—identifying the potential conflicts they have with organizations that qualify for state funding.  This information would then be known prior to the approval of the state budget that would include those grant allocations.  Accepting, sadly, the fact that such external policing is necessary, my question is:  what took someone so long?  Attorneys General around the country have been cracking down on nonprofits for a good number of years now, holding the microscope very, very close.  (Nothing wrong with that, except too often it seems they go after the wrong organizations, ignoring the egregious violators.)   Yet with headline after headline, from east coast to west, north to south, of lawmakers fattening the coffers of questionable nonprofits with ties directly to the lawmakers, what took so long for such a proposal?

The one downside to Coffey’s proposal—based on the limited information about the program that is out there—is that it is voluntary.  Lawmakers will not be required to file disclosures.  (Do not let the irony be lost:  the Form 990 asks nonprofit boards to report whether board members sign an annual disclosure form and then asks for an accounting of every conflict that came up the previous year—what it was, how it was resolved, etc.  While failure to have this annual disclosure submitted by all board members is not illegal, there is an implied correct answer of “yes”.  Answering “No” most definitely raises a red flag. )  So what about those who don’t volunteer?  Coffey says he intends “to insert [himself] into the process.”  I hope he wins so he can insert away!

There is, however, no law that says this festering sore that exists in every legislative body that allows its members to award money, essentially unchecked, to organizations of their choice must wait for Dr. Attorneys General to redress.  In fact, it is so much more seemly when entities oversee and control their own.  It is about time legislative bodies started doing so.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.