Brian A. Benjamin, New York’s second in command to Gov. Kathy Hochul, was charged with bribery, fraud and falsification of records while a state senator.
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William K. Rashbaum, Nicholas Fandos and
Lt. Gov. Brian A. Benjamin of New York resigned on Tuesday, hours after federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment implicating him in a brazen scheme to enrich his political campaigns with illegal donations.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who selected Mr. Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor less than a year ago, announced that he was stepping down immediately “while the legal process plays out.”
“It is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as lieutenant governor,” she wrote in a statement Tuesday evening.
The five-count indictment charging Mr. Benjamin said that while he was a state senator, he had conspired to direct $50,000 in state funds to a Harlem real estate developer’s charity. In exchange, the developer gathered thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to Mr. Benjamin’s 2020 Senate campaign and his unsuccessful 2021 bid for New York City comptroller, the indictment said.
Mr. Benjamin, who pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, was also accused of offering to help the developer, Gerald Migdol, obtain a zoning variance if he made a $15,000 donation to a separate fund for State Senate Democrats. The developer was arrested on federal charges in November and pleaded not guilty at the time.
“This is a simple story of corruption,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference before Mr. Benjamin’s resignation. “Taxpayer money for campaign contributions. A quid pro quo. This for that. That’s bribery, plain and simple.”
The resignation of Mr. Benjamin could prove to be a serious political liability for Ms. Hochul, who took office last year after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in disgrace. Although she was not implicated in any of the allegations against Mr. Benjamin, the indictment of her handpicked No. 2 threatened to undercut Ms. Hochul’s vow to turn the page on an era of scandal in Albany.
The indictment — the result of an investigation by federal prosecutors, the F.B.I. and New York City’s Department of Investigation — accuses Mr. Benjamin of engaging in a “series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme,” including falsifying campaign donation forms, misleading city authorities and giving false information as part of a background check to become lieutenant governor last year.
Mr. Benjamin entered his not guilty plea at a brief appearance in Federal District Court in Lower Manhattan, and was released on a $250,000 bond under terms that require him to get special permission to travel to Albany. He left the courthouse without comment.
Ms. Hochul can select a new lieutenant governor in the coming weeks, but it will be far more difficult to replace Mr. Benjamin on the Democratic primary ballot in June. Because he was designated as the Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, election rules stipulate that 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 last week that he had been cooperating with investigators, after news outlets, including The New York Times, reported details of the investigation. Accompanied by his lawyers, he met with prosecutors last week, according to a person who was briefed on the meeting and not authorized to discuss it, and his top aides were privately reassuring allies that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Lawyers for Mr. Benjamin, James D. Gatta and William J. Harrington, said in a statement that their client was resigning and suspending his campaign to “focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable, not criminal.”
They said that there was “nothing inappropriate” about the $50,000 grant, and that Mr. Benjamin “looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service.”
Mr. Williams — who announced the charges with Michael J. Driscoll, the assistant director in charge of the New York F.B.I. office, and Jocelyn E. Strauber, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigation — laid out the details of the indictment. It accused Mr. Benjamin of bribing Mr. Migdol to help secure small contributions for his comptroller race that could be used to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in public matching funds through a city program.
Prosecutors said Mr. Benjamin had first approached Mr. Migdol for help in March 2019, months before announcing a campaign for comptroller. In a meeting at Mr. Migdol’s home, prosecutors said, the developer told Mr. Benjamin that he was wary of pressuring his network of donors to give beyond what they already contributed to his charity, Friends of Public School Harlem, a group that organized giveaways of school supplies and groceries to needy families.
“Let me see what I can do,” Mr. Benjamin replied, according to the indictment.
In the months that followed, prosecutors said, Mr. Benjamin used his State Senate office to secure a $50,000 taxpayer-funded education grant for the charity that Mr. Migdol never requested, and used it as leverage to press Mr. Migdol to gather contributions.
At one point, Mr. Benjamin sent a text message to Mr. Migdol that showed the developer’s charity among a list of projects receiving state aid. “Do you recognize the third entity on the list?” Mr. Benjamin asked, according to the indictment.
During a meeting at Mr. Benjamin’s Harlem office two weeks later, Mr. Migdol gave him three checks totaling $25,000 made out to his Senate campaign account. Two were in the name of the developer’s relatives and one was from a shell company he controlled, prosecutors said.
Mr. Migdol then filled out campaign contribution forms in front of Mr. Benjamin, signing the forms not in his name, but in the names of his relatives, the prosecutors said. Mr. Benjamin reminded the developer about the $50,000 grant and his need for smaller contributions.
Mr. Benjamin delivered an oversize cardboard check for the $50,000 in grant money the following September at a charity golf tournament for Friends of Public School Harlem, an event documented on Mr. Migdol’s Facebook page. Prosecutors said the funds were never actually disbursed.
Still, within weeks, Mr. Migdol began steering a series of fraudulent donations to the comptroller campaign. Some were made in the names of individuals, including the developer’s 2-year-old grandchild, who did not consent to them; others had donated money but were fully reimbursed. In one instance, he handed a bundle of donations to Mr. Benjamin on the street, according to the indictment.
Who is Brian Benjamin? A Democratic state senator from Harlem, he was selected by Gov. Kathy Hochul last August to be her lieutenant governor in a move widely seen as an attempt by Ms. Hochul to diversify her ticket before her first campaign for governor. Mr. Benjamin resigned from the position on April 12 following an indictment in connection with a campaign finance scheme.
The investigation. Federal authorities have been investigating whether Mr. Benjamin participated in a plan to funnel fraudulent contributions to his unsuccessful 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller. This inquiry stemmed from an indictment charging a Harlem real estate investor with a scheme to conceal contributions to a candidate in that race.
His arrest and resignation. Mr. Benjamin stepped down hours after federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment accusing him of directing the scheme and arrested him. His resignation will complicate Ms. Hochul’s bid to be elected to her first full term as governor.
While not listed by name in the indictment, Mr. Migdol began providing information to investigators after he was arrested in November on charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and other crimes related to his role in the fund-raising scheme, according to people with knowledge of the matter. He was referred to in Tuesday’s charging documents as “CC-1,” short for co-conspirator 1.
Mr. Migdol’s lawyer, Joel Cohen, declined to comment.
Prosecutors said Mr. Benjamin called Mr. Migdol again on Oct. 21, 2020, with another proposal: If the developer contributed $15,000 to a different political campaign committee, Mr. Benjamin would help him win support for a zoning variance from a city community board Mr. Benjamin had once led.
The indictment says the donation was made on Nov. 13, the same day, campaign finance records show, Mr. Migdol transferred $15,000 to the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. The zoning variance sought by Mr. Migdol has not been presented to the community board for approval.
Over time, Mr. Benjamin repeatedly hid his knowledge of the scheme from New York City and state authorities, the prosecutors said. Most notably, the indictment says that during a background check for his appointment as lieutenant governor, Mr. Benjamin falsely claimed twice that he had never “directly exercised” his governmental authority “concerning a matter of a donor” he asked for money.
Ms. Hochul selected Mr. Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor last August, shortly after she became governor following Mr. Cuomo’s resignation amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. The choice of Mr. Benjamin, who is Black, was widely seen as an attempt by Ms. Hochul, a white moderate from Buffalo, to expand her appeal to nonwhite voters in New York City in this year’s elections.
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 in the Democratic primary for comptroller last year.
It was 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 suspicious donations, as well as ethical concerns about his use of campaign funds for a wedding celebration and car expenses. (Mr. Benjamin later refunded the questionable contributions and reached an agreement to repay the campaign expenses in question.)
The other Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor are Diana Reyna, a former New York City councilwoman, and Ana Maria Archila, an activist backed by the left-leaning Working Families Party.
“The governor announced that she would bring a new day, and I’m not sure that’s the case,” Ms. Archila said in an interview on Tuesday.
The news of Mr. Benjamin’s arrest spread throughout Harlem’s political community on Tuesday, with many expressing shock and others declaring his innocence. Mr. Benjamin, who rose from being the chairman of the Central Harlem community board, was considered a rising star.
“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.
Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.
Lt. Gov. Benjamin Resigns Following Campaign Finance Indictment – The New York Times