NY lieutenant governor arrested in campaign donation scheme
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin was arrested Tuesday in a federal corruption investigation, creating a political crisis for Gov. Kathy Hochul seven months after she selected Benjamin as a partner to make a fresh start in an office already rocked by scandal.
Benjamin, a Democrat, was accused in an indictment of participating in a scheme to obtain campaign contributions from a real estate developer in exchange for Benjamin’s agreement to use his influence as a state senator to get a $50,000 grant of state funds for a nonprofit organization the developer controlled.
Facing charges including bribery, fraud, conspiracy and falsification of records, Benjamin pleaded not guilty Tuesday at an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court. He was released and bail was set at $250,000. The terms of his release call for his travel to be restricted and bar him from returning to the state capitol in Albany.
Benjamin and his lawyer did not comment as they left the courthouse Tuesday afternoon.
Hochul in September plucked Benjamin, then a state lawmaker, to serve as second-in-command when she became governor, taking over for Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo resigned amid allegations he sexually harassed 11 women, which he denied.
Hochul, also a Democrat, was Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. She is now running in this year’s election to remain governor, with Benjamin as a running mate.
Hochul said Tuesday at a New York City news conference regarding a shooting on the subway that she would speak about Benjamin later in the day. She said she had not had a chance to speak to him yet.
Two months after Benjamin became lieutenant governor, a real estate developer who steered campaign contributions toward Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller was indicted. Federal authorities accused Gerald Migdol of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft in illegally giving donations to Benjamin’s campaign.
The indictment said Benjamin, formerly a state senator from Harlem, and others acting at his direction or on his behalf engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme that stretched from 2019 to 2021.
They falsified campaign donor forms, misled municipal regulators and provided false information in vetting forms Benjamin submitted while he was being considered to be appointed as lieutenant governor, the indictment said.
Prosecutors had previously not made any accusations against Benjamin. His campaign said at the time of Migdol’s arrest that it had forfeited any improper donations as soon as they were discovered.
More recently, reports came out saying subpoenas had been issued to Benjamin regarding the financial issues before Hochul picked him as lieutenant governor.
Before Benjamin’s arrest, Hochul had defended him, saying last week she had the “utmost confidence” in him. She said on Monday that she didn’t know of the subpoenas when she tapped Benjamin to be her No. 2.
State leaders from both major parties have called on Benjamin to resign. Republican Senate Leader Rob Ortt told Hochul and Senate Democrats “to stop hiding from the truth and join me in demanding Brian Benjamin’s resignation.”
Assembly members Carrie Woerner and Judy Griffin, both Democrats, also called for Benjamin’s resignation.
“It is paramount that the residents of New York state need to trust in the protection, transparency and honesty of our government,” Griffin said in a statement. “The federal charges against our state’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian A. Benjamin, are galling and his alleged actions as a state senator, city comptroller candidate, and in his current role are all unacceptable.”
Spokespeople for Hochul, Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie didn’t immediately provide comment Tuesday when asked if Benjamin should resign.
If Benjamin resigns, he would still likely appear on the ballot for the 2022 gubernatorial Democratic primary even if Hochul picks a new lieutenant governor, according to state elections law.
Benjamin was the state’s second Black lieutenant governor. During his state Legislature career, he emphasized criminal justice reform and affordable housing. His district included most of central Harlem, where he was born and raised by Caribbean immigrant parents.
The scandal is the latest in a long history of lawmakers and other Albany leaders who’ve been engulfed in allegations of wrongdoing.
Cuomo’s resignation as governor came not only amid allegations of sexual harassment but that his administration misrepresented the number of New Yorkers who died in nursing homes from COVID-19.
In 2008, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution investigation.
Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful figures in state government, resigned in 2015 after he was arrested on federal corruption charges.
Former Republican state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who for a time shared power with Silver, was convicted of extortion, wire fraud and bribery.
Hays reported from New York. Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Michelle L. Price and Larry Neumeister contributed from New York and Michael Hill contributed from Albany.