Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin was arrested Tuesday on federal bribery charges related to a scheme to funnel illegal contributions to his campaign for the office of New York City Comptroller in 2021, according to multiple reports.
Benjamin, who was tapped to be Gov. Kathy Hochul’s second-in-command last year after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned, has been bedeviled in recent months by federal investigations surrounding his past campaign for comptroller, and his direction of public funds while he was a state Senator for four years prior to his current role.
Benjamin is now accused of directing public funds to a Harlem investor, Gerald Migdol, in exchange for fraudulent contributions to Benjamin’s campaign for city comptroller last year, according to a federal indictment stemming from an investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York and New York City’s Department of Investigations.
“This is a simple story of corruption,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District, during a press briefing Tuesday.
The five-count indictment accuses Benjamin of bribery, wire fraud, falsification of records and related offenses.
Requests for comment from Benjamin’s office and from his lawyers, James Gatta and William Harrington, were not immediately returned.
When asked about Benjamin’s arrest at a news conference related to a shooting in the New York City subway system Tuesday, Hochul deflected the question, saying she would release a statement. Her other scheduled events on Tuesday afternoon were canceled.
Benjamin pleaded not guilty to the charges on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and was released on $250,000 bond.
What led to the indictment?
Migdol was indicted in November for funneling illegal campaign contributions to a candidate’s campaign for comptroller, but the candidate was not named in that indictment. It was widely believed to be Benjamin at the time.
Last fall, federal officials subpoenaed Benjamin’s former campaign advisers for financial records and communications between Migdol and the campaign. More recently, federal officials subpoenaed the state Senate, seeking information about Benjamin’s direction of discretionary state funding in his former Senate district.
These developments were first reported by The New York Daily News and the New York Times.
What exactly is Benjamin accused of?
The current indictment stems from an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In it, Benjamin is accused of conspiring with a real estate developer — or Migdol, who is referred to as “CC-1,” or campaign contributor 1, in the document — to obtain illegal contributions to his unsuccessful campaign for New York City Comptroller, from at least 2019 to 2021, according to the indictment.
In exchange for those contributions, Benjamin, through his influence as a state Senator for Manhattan’s 30th district at the time, secured $50,000 in grants for a nonprofit organization controlled by Migdol, which, among other things, donated supplies to Harlem schools, the filing reads.
“In doing so, Benjamin abused his authority as a New York state senator, engaging in a bribery scheme using public funds for his own corrupt purposes,” the paperwork stated.
Benjamin originally approached Migdol in 2019 with an ask to collect small contributions for the comptroller campaign, but Migdol said he was focused on fundraising for his nonprofit. Later that year, Benjamin was informed by Senate leadership that he had an extra $50,000 in discretionary funding for use at schools, libraries or educational nonprofits in his district. Benjamin told Migdol he intended to procure that funding for Migdol’s nonprofit, according to the indictment.
About a month later, Migdol would make campaign contributions to Benjamin’s campaign via checks written in the name of relatives who did not share his last name, and in the name of an LLC Migdol controlled, in an attempt to conceal the origin of the contributions, according to court paperwork.
Later that fall, Benjamin presented Migdol with an oversized $50,000 check for a charity, Friends of Public School Harlem. It’s unclear if the funds were ever delivered to the charity.
“Taxpayer money for campaign contributions – quid pro quo,” Williams said Tuesday. “That’s bribery, plain and simple.”
Migdol would go on to funnel more fraudulent contributions to the campaign between 2019 and 2021, the paperwork states, saying that some contributions “were made in the name of individuals who had not personally funded the contributions, or who were reimbursed for such contributions.”
Benjamin then engaged in a series of “lies and deceptions” to conceal the scheme and connection with Migdol, the filing reads. This included falsifying campaign forms, misleading city regulators and repeatedly lying on vetting forms he filled out as part of the appointment process for the lieutenant governor role, Williams said.
“That’s a cover-up,” Williams added. “Public corruption erodes people’s confidence and faith in government. It’s our obligation to uphold the rule of law.”
What happens next?
Benjamin’s arrest comes at a tense time in Albany, as Hochul just wrapped up her first state budget with the legislature and is preparing for the final stretch in her bid for a full term as governor.
Now, questions swirl about whether Hochul will proceed with Benjamin as her political partner into the June primary. Meanwhile, Benjamin will likely face immediate public calls for his resignation.
Just last week, she said she had full confidence in Benjamin as her running mate, as questions swirled about why Benjamin reportedly didn’t inform Hochul of the investigation into his former campaign prior to his appointment to his current role.
She had previously said that she didn’t know about the federal subpeonas related to Benjamin’s prior campaign and his use of public funding.
“I have utmost confidence in my lieutenant governor,” Hochul said during a state budget press briefing last week. “This is an independent investigation related to other people, and he’s fully cooperating.”
Benjamin, also present at that briefing, added that he provided all relevant information to the New York State Police as they looked into his background during the appointment process for lieutenant governor.
How did NY lawmakers react?
Following the news of the indictment and arrest Tuesday, Hochul’s opponents pointed to her lapse in judgement in appointing Benjamin as her lieutenant governor.
Today’s bombshell is an indictment on Kathy Hochul’s lack of experience and poor judgement,” said Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-Glen Cove, who is running against Hochul for governor.
Se. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, called on Benjamin to resign, pointing to the public distraction caused by the myriad scandals that surrounded Hochul’s predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, last fall.
“Lt. Gov. Benjamin must resign immediately because he’s under a cloud of criminality and we can’t have another distraction like we had in the past year (with Cuomo,)” Tedisco said. “This arrest also raises serious questions about Governor Hochul’s judgment and her vetting process.”
The developments shed a disappointing light on Hochul’s desire to turn the page on corruption in Albany, said Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome.
“The governor has stated that she would make it made it a priority to ‘change the culture of Albany.’ This has not happened under her leadership,” Griffo said in a statement Tuesday. “The arrest of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin continues a disappointing, troubling and frustrating trend for state government and upon Gov. Hochul’s administration.”
Sarah Taddeo is the New York State Team Editor for the USA Today Network. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or on Twitter @Sjtaddeo.