New York, NY – March 1, 2022: Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin speaks during Governor Kathy Hochul announcement of the completion Taystee Lab Building. (Shutterstock)
By Sonia Moghe and Gregory Krieg, CNN
CNN – New York Democratic Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin resigned Tuesday, the state’s governor said, after being arrested and indicted on charges in connection with his alleged participation in a scheme to obtain campaign contributions in exchange for securing a state grant.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she had “accepted Brian Benjamin’s resignation effective immediately.”
“While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor. New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.
Benjamin was appointed to his position by Hochul after she took over the state’s top job from Andrew Cuomo following his resignation last summer. Hochul, who just completed contentious budget negotiations in Albany, will now come under scrutiny over the vetting process that preceded her decision to elevate Benjamin, who finished fourth in the 2021 Democratic primary for New York City comptroller – a campaign in which prosecutors now say he sought and received illegal contributions. Benjamin is also accused of lying on a background check that followed Hochul’s decision to make him her top deputy.
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Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, would not comment on what, if any, contact investigators have had with Hochul’s office.
“This indictment is about one person: Brian Benjamin,” he said.
Despite stepping down, Benjamin will, in accordance with state law, remain on the primary ballot as the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party.
A senior state party official told CNN on Tuesday, before Benjamin announced his decision, that “it would be best if (the party) found another candidate, if it’s at all possible for (Benjamin) to be removed from the line” and that party leadership is planning to “explore all the options on that.”
“It’s a complicated process. There’s not that many ways to do it, but there are some ways to do it. So we’re looking at that,” the official said. “And if we can, then obviously there’s a committee on vacancies and we would take the recommendation of the governor for who we should replace him with, if that’s at all possible.”
The official also defended Hochul against criticism of her vetting process, referencing prosecutors’ allegation that Benjamin had lied on his official background check.
“The US attorney made clear in his indictment today that one of the things was an issue was Brian Benjamin’s lack of honesty in the vetting process,” the official said. “I don’t know how you fault the governor or her vetting team, frankly, for getting misinformation. She does not have access to investigations ongoing in the US attorney’s office.”
Benjamin is running against two other Democrats, Ana Maria Archila, a longtime progressive leader supported by the liberal Working Families Party, and Diana Reyna, a former member of the New York City Council.
Archila, in an email to supporters on Tuesday, said Benjamin had betrayed New Yorkers.
“Our elected officials should be held to the highest ethical standard to preserve the public trust. My opponent has violated that compact,” Archila said. “Albany has been plagued by corruption for too long, with politicians trading favors for the money of the wealthy and powerful.”
In a joint statement, Reyna and New York US Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is challenging Hochul in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, cast Benjamin’s arrest as a mark against the new governor.
“Today’s bombshell is an indictment on Kathy Hochul’s lack of experience and poor judgement,” Suozzi and Reyna said. “Hochul’s first decision was to pick her LG, who she entrusted with leading her failed bail reform effort, negotiating the budget and last week said she had the utmost faith in him despite many reports of investigations into his conduct in office.”
Williams condemned Benjamin at a news conference early Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a simple story of corruption,” Williams said, adding later, “Taxpayer money for campaign contributions. Quid pro quo. This for that. That’s bribery, plain and simple.”
According to an indictment unsealed Tuesday, Benjamin was indicted on multiple counts, including bribery and honest services wire fraud conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and two counts of falsification of records, for an alleged conspiracy that took place while he was a state senator.
A source familiar with the matter says Benjamin turned himself in to authorities Tuesday morning. Benjamin pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court and is out on $250,000 bond, according to court documents.
In a statement confirming his resignation, Benjamin’s attorneys said he “will focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable, not criminal.”
“He looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service,” attorneys James D. Gatta and William J. Harrington said.
A Benjamin campaign spokesperson previously told CNN, “Neither Lieutenant Governor Benjamin nor his campaign are being accused of any wrongdoing and they are prepared to fully cooperate with authorities. As soon as the campaign discovered that these contributions were improperly sourced, they donated them to the Campaign Finance Board, pursuant to guidance obtained from the CFB.”
Alleged scheme involved campaign contributions
The indictment states that from about 2019 to 2021, when Benjamin was a state senator, he allegedly took part in a scheme to get campaign contributions from an unnamed Harlem-based real estate developer in exchange for a $50,000 state grant for a non-profit organization controlled by the developer. The non-profit organization donated school supplies and other resources to public school programs and students in Harlem, the indictment states.
“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 indictment states.
Williams said that although the $50,000 state grant was ultimately not delivered, it “will not be a legal impediment to this indictment.”
The indictment alleges that others acting at his direction or on his behalf “engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up his scheme” by allegedly falsifying campaign donor forms, misleading municipal regulators and providing false information in vetting forms that Benjamin submitted while he was under consideration to be appointed as the next lieutenant governor of New York. Benjamin served as a state senator from June 2017, representing northern Manhattan, until he was appointed by Hochul.
The unnamed real estate developer allegedly made fraudulent contributions to Benjamin’s failed bid to become the New York City comptroller by purportedly making donations in the names of people who had not personally funded the contributions or who were reimbursed for making the contributions, the indictment states.
Prosecutors allege that Benjamin told staff and advisers that certain contributions were collected by the developer, and that on more than one occasion, Benjamin personally met with the developer to receive his contributions – even meeting on the street to collect a “bundle” of contributions.
The indictment also alleges that Benjamin told the developer he’d help the real estate mogul obtain community board approval for a zoning variance permit for a property he owned, in exchange for a contribution to a political action committee.
When the New York State Board of Elections notified Benjamin’s campaign in 2019 that it needed to file forms identifying the owners of LLC’s that had contributed to the campaign, including one linked to the unnamed real estate developer, Benjamin allegedly asked a staffer in an email, “What happens if someone refuses to provide that information?” Prosecutors allege that the campaign ultimately did not provide information on who owned the company associated with the developer to election officials.
After a report published by The City in 2021 raised questions about donations, prosecutors allege Benjamin’s campaign for comptroller sent a letter to the Campaign Finance Board stating it had no reason to question the legitimacy of the contributions.
Though the real estate donor is not mentioned by name in the Benjamin indictment, a Harlem-based developer named Gerald Migdol was arrested and indicted in November 2021 on charges including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft in connection with a scheme to misrepresent and conceal the sources of political campaign contributions. Migdol pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Migdol’s indictment mentioned an unnamed candidate called “Candidate-1,” and alleges Migdol took part in a scheme to conceal the sources of contributions made to that candidate’s campaign. On Tuesday, Benjamin was added as a co-defendant in Migdol’s case. CNN has reached out to Migdol’s attorneys for comment.
The Benjamin indictment also alleges that while he was under consideration for the lieutenant governor post, he allegedly falsely claimed on a questionnaire that he had never directly exercised his governmental authority concerning a donor he directly solicited. Prosecutors claim Benjamin called the real estate developer two hours after he submitted the questionnaire, for the first time in six months.
On Tuesday, a company website for Migdol’s real estate company still had a photo of Benjamin under a section called: “Who we support, and who supports us.”