A few days before he announced that things are so bad that he needs to lay off thousands of city workers and close 20 firehouses, Michael Bloomberg put the son of a good friend on the city payroll.
Christopher Coffey, 30, was hired in early January at the unit now known as NYC Media. The office has the essential mission of putting together city television and radio shows. Coffey was installed at a desk on an upper floor at the Municipal Building, where he was given the lofty title of Director of External Affairs and a salary of $114,000 a year.
Being able to hire friends and family is one of the great perks of being the boss, especially when it is someone who might otherwise have a hard time landing a job. This rule apparently holds true even for New York’s richest citizen, the mayor who pledged to always deliver progress, not politics.
In Coffey’s case, his résumé is solid Bloomberg: He worked on the mayor’s first campaign, and on last year’s re-election, where he earned $9,000 a month, plus a $20,000 bonus for the victory he helped deliver. He went there directly from Bloomberg LP, the mayor’s giant media firm, where he worked on political coverage. He did an earlier stint for the company in Washington from 2000 to 2001, when he was “Special Assistant” to Kevin Sheekey, the Bloomberg political adviser who is now a deputy mayor. Coffey’s résumé lists his chores at the time as planning the “Bloomberg After-Party” for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
The NYC Media post is his second tour of duty on Team Bloomberg’s public branch: He was an assistant press secretary in Bloomberg’s first term, before being bumped up to deputy commissioner at the mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, where he earned $101,000 a year.
Coffey’s fans say he is a hard worker, and this may be true, despite grumblings by co-workers that he does more boasting about his connections than rolling up his sleeves. But it also doesn’t hurt that his mother is a leading figure in the upper reaches of New York society who is close to Bloomberg and first deputy mayor Patti Harris. Diane Coffey was chief of staff to former mayor Ed Koch; that’s where Harris worked for her. She is currently managing director for the investment firm of another Bloomberg friend, Peter J. Solomon, and serves on the boards of Lincoln Center, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.
This is an excellent pedigree for any city employee. But what’s interesting about Chris Coffey’s employment history is that he has found his way to a new six-figure job on the taxpayer’s dime at a time of intense fiscal crisis without having a college degree—and despite an incident a couple of years ago that would have derailed the careers of those less well-connected.
Back in March 2007, Coffey was getting ready to shift from his job with the Community Assistance office to another organization headed by the mayor, the September 11 Memorial & Museum, when he went out to celebrate with friends. Coffey had a few too many, and police responded to a report of a “rowdy drunk” outside the Maritime Hotel bar on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea.
As the Daily News reported at the time, Coffey was seen “stumbling around and pounding on cars.” Cops found him sitting inside his city-owned automobile with the engine on. “I’m not turning off the car, and I’m not getting out,” he told officers. A test showed him well over the threshold of intoxication, and he was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while impaired.
A few months later, charges were dismissed since it couldn’t be proven that Coffey actually intended to operate said vehicle. The job at the 9/11 memorial fell through, and he took some time off before rejoining Bloomberg LP. He later shifted to the campaign, collecting his bonus just before Christmas. He was hired at NYC Media, a division of DOITT—the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, on January 11.
Coffey sailed right into the job. Under agency personnel procedures, vacancies are supposed to be posted for at least 10 days. The rules specify that a minimum of four candidates must be interviewed and evaluated before anyone is hired. These guidelines are considered so basic that they’re printed twice in the city’s “Internal Personnel Action Request” rules—both times in boldface.
But in Coffey’s case, he was hired on the very first day that the vacancy notice for his job was posted. That’s because he was also the only one considered, officials acknowledged. You might ask why a vacancy notice was posted in the first place, but good luck getting an answer. Still, none of this violated city hiring policies, officials insisted, because “the agency had an immediate need for someone with his skill set.”
Bloomberg aides were so rattled by questions about Coffey’s hiring that spokesmen for the agency handling city personnel matters wouldn’t even say what policies apply. All city officials would say was that they follow “applicable federal and state law.” What a relief.
Coffey also aced out on the pay scale. The vacancy notice called for a salary range of $49,492 to $114,000. Job requirements were listed as a master’s degree or some lesser combination of college credit and experience. Coffey—minus a diploma—somehow nailed the top rate. He clearly did well. Coffey’s job entails handing community and governmental affairs for the 66-employee unit. DOITT’s own Director of External Affairs is Nicholas Sbordone, who handles the entire 1,300-member agency and makes just $65,000 a year. NYC Media officials insisted that Coffey’s job carries significant additional duties.
Reached at his desk, Coffey quickly jumped off the phone. “I’m going to let someone else handle this,” he said.
But it’s not just a case of one mayoral pal getting a cushy job. Coffey is just the latest recruit at an agency where hiring cronies has long been standard operating procedure. The mayor’s first director of NYC TV was Arick Wierson, whose wife was a longtime employee of Bloomberg TV.
Wierson was forced out last spring after investigators discovered that he was such an absentee boss that his top aide was able to steal more than $40,000 without anyone noticing. Wierson didn’t notice because he was traveling the world shooting a large-budget private documentary, financed with the help of an NYC TV client. City probers never investigated the film’s financing. But last month, Wierson paid a $5,000 fine, admitting that city workers had done personal chores for him and that he had recruited other NYC TV aides to work on his lavish movie.
After the Wierson scandal, the mayor had Katherine Oliver, another Bloomberg LP alumnus who now runs the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting, take charge. Oliver hired another Bloomberg LP veteran, Todd Asher, as the station’s $155,000-a-year chief officer. Asher brought on an old college friend of Oliver’s, Diane Petzke, as the $130,000-a-year head of production and programming.
The Bloomberg TV people saw nothing wrong with this old-boys-and-old-girls network. But others noted that all of the new hires were white, while several minorities were either laid off or bumped aside. “There’s just been a ‘white-out,’ ” said one employee.
As required, NYC Media posts its Equal Opportunity report right on its website. Not that it does much good. Officials didn’t even bother to list three of the jobs it filled—including Coffey’s—on the report. Like other city employment documents, it declares in bold that “The City of New York Is an Equal Opportunity Employer.” In the Bloomberg Era, some are just more equal than others.