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Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin Indicted on Federal Charges of Bribery, Fraud and Falsification of Records


Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

New York is home of "when you're running for office and/or elected, you can take all the money you want from any pocket."

Until you get caught.

UPDATE: Brian benjamin resigned on April 12, 2022,  after his arrest.

NY Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin Resigns Following Arrest in Campaign Finance Fraud Case: Hochul

Betsy Combier
Editor, ADVOCATZ Blog

Lt. Gov. Benjamin Arrested in Campaign Finance Scheme

William K. RashbaumNicholas Fandos and Y TIMES, April 12, 2022

Lt. Gov. Brian A. Benjamin of New York, the state’s second-in-command to Gov. Kathy Hochul, surrendered early Tuesday morning to face a federal indictment charging him with bribery, fraud, and falsification of records in connection with a scheme to funnel illegal donations to a previous campaign.

The five-count indictment accused Mr. Benjamin of conspiring to direct state funds to a Harlem real estate investor in exchange for orchestrating thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Mr. Benjamin’s unsuccessful 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller.

“In so doing, Benjamin abused his authority as a New York State senator, engaging in a bribery scheme using public funds for his own corrupt purposes,” prosecutors charged in the indictment. The investor was arrested on federal charges in November.

The indictment — the result of an investigation by the F.B.I., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and the city’s Department of Investigation — also charged that Mr. Benjamin subsequently “engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme,” including falsifying campaign donation forms, misleading New York City authorities and giving false information as part of a background check to become lieutenant governor last year.

The legal turmoil casts Mr. Benjamin’s political future in question, and complicates this year’s election for him and Ms. Hochul, who was catapulted into office last year after her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, resigned after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.

There is no suggestion that Ms. Hochul was aware of Mr. Benjamin’s alleged criminal conduct, which prosecutors said occurred when he was a state senator. Still, she took office last year promising to end an era of impropriety in Albany, and selecting Mr. Benjamin, 45, was among her first major decisions as governor.

Lawyers for Mr. Benjamin, James D. Gatta and William J. Harrington, initially declined to comment, as did the United States Attorney’s office and the F.B.I. Spokeswomen for Mr. Benjamin and Ms. Hochul also declined to immediately comment.

Mr. Benjamin will almost certainly face pressure to resign from office. Even if he were to step down, he will likely remain on the ballot in June, when he faces two spirited primary challengers. Because Mr. Benjamin was designated as the Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, his name can only be removed at this point if he were to move out of the state, die or seek another office.

Mr. Benjamin said recently that he had been cooperating with investigators, who had issued subpoenas in recent weeks to the State Senate in Albany and people who had advised his comptroller campaign. The lieutenant governor, accompanied by his lawyers, met with prosecutors last week, according to a person familiar with the matter, and his top aides were reassuring allies in private that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.

But the Harlem real estate investor who illegally assisted his campaign, Gerald Migdol, while not listed by name in the indictment, began providing information to investigators after he was arrested in November on an indictment charging him with wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and other crimes related to his role in the fund-raising scheme, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.

In that indictment, prosecutors said that Mr. Migdol began to steer thousands of dollars worth of fraudulent contributions to Mr. Benjamin in October 2019, just a month after the state senator filed to run for comptroller. They accused him of making straw donations in the name of individuals, including his 2-year-old grandchild, who did not consent to them, and of reimbursing others for the cost of their contributions.

At the time, the prosecutors did not comment on Mr. Migdol’s motive, or explicitly name Mr. Benjamin. But they said his scheme was designed to help the candidate tap into New York City’s generous public campaign matching funds program and secure him tens of thousands of dollars in additional campaign cash.

The two men were close and traded accolades at a series of charitable and political functions over the years in Harlem, where Mr. Migdol made a name for himself distributing school supplies and Thanksgiving turkeys through his charity.

State records and a Facebook photo posted by Mr. Migdol at the time show Mr. Benjamin presenting him with an oversized cardboard check for $50,000 for the charity, Friends of Public School Harlem, in September 2019. It is unclear if the funds, which were earmarked as part of a discretionary state education fund, were ever actually delivered, but they represented one of the largest outside gifts ever directed to the small charity.

A graduate of Ivy League schools, Mr. Benjamin, spent much of his career in banking and affordable housing development before winning a State Senate seat representing most of Harlem in 2017.

In Albany, he was a leading proponent of criminal justice reform measures passed by Democrats after they won the majority in 2018. He finished fourth last year in the Democratic primary for comptroller.

Ms. Hochul selected Mr. Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor last August, after the resignation of Mr. Cuomo elevated her to the governor’s mansion from that position. The decision was widely seen as a way for Ms. Hochul, a white moderate from Buffalo, to expand her appeal to nonwhite voters in New York City ahead of this year’s elections.

It is unclear how carefully Ms. Hochul or her advisers vetted Mr. Benjamin before the appointment.

There had already been published reports by The City at the time showing that Mr. Benjamin’s campaign had benefited from apparent straw donations, as well as ethical concerns about his use of campaign funds for a wedding celebration and automobile expenses. (Mr. Benjamin later refunded the suspect contributions and reached an agreement to repay the campaign expenses in question.)

The duties of the lieutenant governor position vary by administration. Mr. Benjamin has kept a brisk schedule of official events in the eight months since taking office, often presiding over the State Senate and representing Ms. Hochul at events in the New York City area. As Ms. Hochul’s experience made clear, the lieutenant governor’s most important function is to step in should the governor resign or die in office.

Mr. Benjamin faces two formidable primary opponents: Diana Reyna, a former New York City councilwoman, and Ana Maria Archila, an activist backed by the left-leaning Working Families Party.

If either were to defeat him and Ms. Hochul still prevails in her race, the governor could find herself on a Democratic ticket in this fall’s general election with a relatively adversarial running mate.

The news of Mr. Benjamin’s arrest spread throughout Harlem’s political community on Tuesday, with many declaring his innocence. Mr. Benjamin, who rose from being the chairman of the Central Harlem community board, was considered a rising star. When Ms. Hochul announced his appointment, she did so on 125th Street in Harlem.

“When this is all over with, it’ll be what I know: Brian did not do anything to break the law,” said Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York State chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., and one of Mr. Benjamin’s political mentors.

William K. Rashbaum is a senior writer on the Metro desk, where he covers political and municipal corruption, courts, terrorism and law enforcement. He was a part of the team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. @WRashbaum  Facebook

Nicholas Fandos is a reporter on the Metro desk covering New York State politics, with a focus on money, lobbying and political influence. He was previously a congressional correspondent in Washington. @npfandos

Jeffery C. Mays is a reporter on the Metro desk who covers politics with a focus on New York City Hall. A native of Brooklyn, he is a graduate of Columbia University. @JeffCMays