A federal judge has dismissed the bulk of the corruption charges against former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin.
U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken of the Southern District of New York said in an opinion released Monday that federal prosecutors failed "to allege an explicit quid pro quo, which [are] an essential element of the bribery and honest services wire fraud charges brought against Benjamin."
The court dismissed three of the five charges brought against Benjamin – all related to donations he received from a real estate investor-turned-campaign donor. However, Benjamin will still face two falsification of records charges leveled against him.
Federal prosecutors appealed the partial dismissal late Monday afternoon.
Benjamin’s April arrest and resignation threw state politics into a brief tailspin as Gov. Kathy Hochul scrambled to find a new lieutenant governor months before the Democratic primary.
In the felony indictment earlier this year, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged Benjamin obtained thousands of dollars in donations from Harlem developer Gerald Migdol during Benjamin’s run for New York City Comptroller between 2019 and 2021. In exchange for the money, the indictment alleged he helped obtain a $50,000 state grant for a non-profit run by Migdol.
Migdol was arrested in 2021 on federal charges of wire fraud and identity theft. He pleaded guilty to the bribery and fraud charges from the indictment in April of this year.
The remaining charges against Benjamin rely on documents he filled out during the vetting process for lieutenant governor. There, he attested that he never "directly exercised [his] governmental authority . . . concerning a matter of a donor [he] directly solicited."
Lawyers representing Benjamin argued that the exchange of campaign donations was not explicit enough to meet the standard for corruption. Federal court precedent holds that the actions are illegal "only if the payments are made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an official act."
Instead, the indictment only "gestures toward an agreement" between Benjamin and Migdol, according to Oetken.
Benjamin's attorneys, Barry Berke and Dani James, celebrated the decision in a joint statement, calling the April indictment a "direct assault on the democratic process."
"From the very beginning, we said we are shocked and dismayed that the prosecution would bring such flimsy and unwarranted charges based on nothing more than routine fundraising and support of a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools," the lawyers said in a joint statement. "Today's decision shows how these wrongful charges so harmed Mr. Benjamin and unfairly cost him his position as Lt. Governor."
Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, declined to comment. The office later filed its appeal just before close of business Monday.
Hochul appointed Benjamin as lieutenant governor in September 2021, marking her first major decision after taking over the governor’s office from Andrew Cuomo the month prior. Benjamin served in the role until his indictment and resignation on April 12, 2022. She tapped then-Rep. Antonio Delgado who resigned his Congressional seat for the post and recently won his first full term in the office.
Before his time in the Hochul administration, Benjamin represented the 30th District – which primarily includes Harlem – in the State Senate.
Hochul's office declined comment.
This article has been updated to reflect that federal prosecutors appealed the dismissal.