New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that she believed Brian Benjamin was “clean” based on the state's vetting process before she appointed him lieutenant governor last summer, less than eight months before he resigned amid a bribery scandal.
Hochul appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in her first interview since Benjamin abruptly resigned Tuesday evening, hours after he was hit with a five-count federal indictment accusing him of securing $50,000 in state funds for a Harlem nonprofit in exchange for campaign donations.
Asked why she picked Benjamin, then a state senator representing Harlem, in August despite lingering, public questions about his campaign-fundraising practices, Hochul suggested she assumed Benjamin was in the clear.
“We had been told that everything that had risen up had been addressed, everything was clean, and that’s what we were told [in] the process,” she said. “But I made the best decision I could with the information I had at that time.”
But speaking to reporters in Queens later in the day, Hochul acknowledged much of the information was provided by Benjamin himself on vetting forms, which federal prosecutors now say he lied on -- including by saying he never took government action on behalf of a campaign donor.
Hochul said she was unaware Benjamin had received subpoenas from prosecutors prior to his appointment, which she previously said earlier this month. Benjamin himself said he did not inform Hochul personally of any subpoenas issued to his campaign, though he said he “participated” in the State Police Department’s vetting process.
“Clearly there would have been a different outcome had we been aware of that,” Hochul said on WNYC. “I think that's pretty much a given.”
Later in the day, Hochul acknowledged that she was aware Benjamin had been questioned.
"Related to activities that came prior to his becoming lieutenant governor, I had became aware there had questioning but that we were not involved, that it was going to be resolved," she said.
Benjamin’s implosion will give Hochul a second opportunity to appoint a new lieutenant governor, though it’s not certain any appointee will be able to get on the June 28 primary ballot since Benjamin is still on it. And it has given her political opponents an opportunity to question her judgment.
Nick Langworthy, the state Republican chairman, said Hochul has “some explaining to do.”
“She has demonstrated a stunning lack of judgment that is only exacerbated by her terrible handling of this major crisis rocking her administration,” Langworthy said in a statement.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island Democrat challenging Hochul in the primary, held a virtual news conference with his preferred lieutenant governor pick, former New York City Councilmember Diana Reyna, to criticize Hochul’s initial selection of Benjamin – as well as her decision to forcefully stand behind him just last week.
“Gov. Hochul is completely out of step with the priorities of New Yorkers today,” Suozzi said. “People are concerned about crime, taxes and affordability, and they're concerned about the corruption in Albany.”
Under New York election law, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run in separate primaries. The winners are then joined together as a ticket for the November elections.
New York Democrats are scrambling to find a way to remove Benjamin from the ballot, either by finding a party to nominate him for a new position or by convincing him to move out of state.
Reyna, who would be the first Dominican American to hold statewide office if elected, faced repeated questions about whether she would consider taking the lieutenant governor position if Hochul were to offer it to her. The idea stemmed from whether Hochul could try to poach her opponent’s preferred running mate if she can’t replace Benjamin on the ballot.
But Reyna suggested that if that were to happen, she would stick with her endorsement of Suozzi ahead of the primary.
“That’s the point – I already endorsed Tom Suozzi for governor,” Reyna said. “And we are in the midst of a campaign towards the goal of getting elected June 28.”
For her part, Hochul said it’s too soon to rule anything in or out. Under court precedent, she has the ability to appoint a lieutenant governor through the remainder of Benjamin’s term, which runs through the end of the year. After that, the next lieutenant governor will be determined at the ballot box.
“There's been absolutely no decisions made,” Hochul said. “It is too early in the process.”