Prosecutors say politician ‘abused his authority as a New York State senator, engaging in a bribery scheme using public funds for his own corrupt purposes’
New York Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin has been arrested for allegedly conspiring to commit bribery while he served as a state senator, in addition to other charges.
Mr Benjamin surrendered early on Tuesday following an indictment relating to a federal bribery conspiracy. The alleged scheme involved transferring fraudulent donations to a previous campaign, The New York Times reported.
The indictment and arrest come after an investigation by the FBI and the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
Mr Benjamin faces allegations that he directed state funds to a real estate investor in Harlem in exchange for pushing through thousands of dollars worth of illegal campaign contributions to Mr Benjamin’s failed campaign last year for New York City comptroller. The investor was arrested in November last year on federal charges.
The US attorney’s office confirmed that Mr Benjamin had been arrested on “bribery and other offenses”.
“Benjamin abused his authority as a New York State senator, engaging in a bribery scheme using public funds for his own corrupt purposes,” prosecutors said in the indictment.
They also said Mr Benjamin “engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme”, such as fabricating donation forms, misleading NYC authorities, and providing false information during his background check to become lieutenant governor last year.
The career of New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s second in command is now in question, not long after Ms Hochul ascended from the post of lieutenant governor last year when former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations. New Yorkers will head to the polls later this year.
There’s no indication that Ms Hochul was aware of the allegations against Mr Benjamin, according to The Times.
But when she took office last year, she promised to put an end to inappropriate behaviour in Albany, the New York state capital. Appointing Mr Benjamin, 45, was one of her first significant decisions as governor. He’s set to appear in court later on Tuesday.
Mr Benjamin will likely be urged to resign from his post, but even if he does so, he’s likely to remain on the primary ballot in June, when he’s set to face two opponents. As he’s been designated as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, he can only be removed from the ballot if he moves out of state, campaigns for another office, or dies.
Just last week, both Mr Benjamin and his aides told allies in private that they believed he would be cleared of wrongdoing, according to The Times.
There are indications that the Harlem investor, Gerald Migdol, started sharing information with investigators after he was arrested on several charges, including wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Prosecutors said in a November indictment that Mr Migdol began directing fraudulent campaign donations to Mr Benjamin in October 2019 – a month after he filed paperwork to run for comptroller. Prosecutors accused Mr Migdol of making straw donations in the names of people who didn’t agree to them, such as his 2-year-old grandchild, as well as paying people back for making donations.
While prosecutors didn’t name Mr Benjamin at the time and didn’t state a motive for Mr Migdol, they said the plan was structured to aid the candidate to take advantage of New York City’s public campaign matching funds programme, getting him tens of thousands of dollars in extra campaign funds.
A photo posted to Facebook by Mr Migdol on 13 September 2019 shows Mr Benjamin, then a state senator, handing over a check to Mr Migdol for $50,000 made out to Friends of Public Schools Harlem Inc – Mr Migdol’s charity.
The funds were earmarked as part of a state education fund, but it’s unclear if the money was delivered.
The Independent has reached out to lawyers for Mr Benjamin as well as the office of Governor Hochul for comment.