By Marina Villeneuve and Tom Hays
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.
Two lawyers representing Benjamin did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
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 for governor in this year’s election, with Benjamin as a running mate.
Hochul, who appeared at a New York City news conference Tuesday regarding a shooting on the subway, said she would speak about Benjamin later in the day.
“We’ll have a statement out there. I have not had a chance to speak to him. I was doing media interviews this morning. But this is not the place but I will be addressing it very shortly,” Hochul said.
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 also 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, and 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 even before Hochul picked him as lieutenant governor.
Republican chairman Nick Langworthy said in a prepared statement that “Hochul chose a dirty politician to serve as her partner in government and running mate.”
“Brian Benjamin’s shady dealings and corruption were well-documented, but Hochul turned a blind eye and put him a heartbeat away from the governorship,” Langworthy said.
Hochul said Monday at a press conference she didn’t know of the subpoenas when she tapped Benjamin to be her No. 2.
She said last week she had the “utmost confidence” in Benjamin.
“This is an independent investigation related to other people and he’s fully cooperating. He is my running mate,” Hocuhl said Thursday at a press conference.
Republican minority legislative leaders — Senate Leader Rob Ortt and Assembly Leader Will Barclay — called on Benjamin to resign.
“Kathy Hochul and Senate Democrats might tolerate this corruption, but New Yorkers don’t and neither do I,” Ortt said. “I’m calling on Gov. Hochul and Senate Democrats to stop hiding from the truth and join me in demanding Brian Benjamin’s resignation.”
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.
“There are only three ways to get off the ballot: death, declination or disqualification,” State board of elections spokesperson John Conklin said in an email.
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.
He has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Brown University and a master’s of business administration from Harvard Business School, and worked as a developer of affordable housing.