Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin arrested on bribery charges, resigns over campaign finance scheme
In the second scandal to overshadow a major New York official in the past year, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin surrendered to authorities 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.
He resigned later in the day over what a federal prosecutor called a "simple story of corruption," as Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to keep working to give everyday New Yorkers a reason to have confidence in their state government.
Benjamin, who was tapped to be Hochul’s second-in-command last year after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid multiple sexual harassment allegations, 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.
After weeks of mounting questions regarding his involvement with those investigations, Benjamin was on Tuesday accused of directing public funds to a Harlem investor 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.
Benjamin resigned effective Tuesday, Hochul said in a statement.
"While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor," Hochul said. "New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them."
"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, laying out a case that he directed public funding to the investor's nonprofit organization knowing that the investor would eventually provide contributions to his political campaigns, and then attempted to cover up the deal, according to the paperwork.
Benjamin pleaded not guilty to the charges on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and was released on $250,000 bond.
Benjamin's lawyers, James Gatta and William Harrington of law firm Goodwin Procter, pushed back on the charges in a Tuesday statement, while confirming Benjamin's resignation and indicating that Benjamin still wants a future in public service.
"He will focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable—not criminal," the statement read. "He looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service."
What led to the indictment?
The investor in question is Gerald Migdol, who is not named in the indictment but was indicted last fall for funneling illegal campaign contributions to a candidate’s campaign for comptroller. The candidate, not named in that indictment, was widely believed to be Benjamin at the time.
Migdol heads the Migdol Organization, which in turn runs Friends of Public School Harlem, which provides resources to Harlem's public schools.
Migdol and Benjamin first met sometimes in 2017, with Migdol contributing to Benjamin's political campaigns and providing financial support for community events promoted by Benjamin for several years afterwards, the court paperwork states.
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.
The subpeonas 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 investor — or Migdol, who is referred to as "CC-1," or co-conspirator 1, in the document — to obtain 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 New York's 30th District at the time, secured $50,000 in grants for a nonprofit organization, called "Organization-1," which is controlled by Migdol and 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 $25,000 in campaign contributions to Benjamin's Senate 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.
He could not yet contribute directly to Benjamin's comptroller campaign because Benjamin had yet to certify his run for comptroller with the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
That fall, Benjamin presented Migdol with an oversized $50,000 check for Friends of Public School Harlem. The funds were never dispersed, as the nonprofit ceased its efforts to secure the funding following a Jan. 2021 news article that raised questions about contributions to Benjamin's comptroller campaign, according to the indictment.
"Taxpayer money for campaign contributions - quid pro quo," Williams, the U.S. Attorney, said Tuesday. "That's bribery, plain and simple."
Migdol would go on to direct more contributions to Benjamin's comptroller campaign between 2019 and 2021, many of which were fraudulent, the indictment states, adding 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.
Questions swirled about whether Hochul would have proceeded with Benjamin as her political partner into the June primary, but those were soon answered as Hochul's announced Benjamin's resignation late Tuesday.
Just last week, Hochul said she had full confidence in Benjamin as her running mate, in response to media questions 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.
“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 and fellow lawmakers in Albany 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.
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. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.