New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin resigned from office hours after he was arrested Tuesday in connection with a bribery scheme, in which federal prosecutors say he directed a $50,000 state grant to a Harlem nonprofit in exchange for numerous donations to his political campaigns.
In federal court Tuesday afternoon, Benjamin pleaded not guilty to a five-count felony indictment that accused him of bribery, fraud and falsification of records related to the alleged scheme.
The 23-page indictment traces the alleged conduct back to May or June 2019, when Benjamin first met with a real-estate developer to discuss his plan to run for city comptroller and ask for donations. Within weeks, Benjamin had secured a $50,000 state grant for a nonprofit run by the developer. And two weeks later, the developer gave Benjamin $25,000 in checks for his existing Senate campaign, according to the indictment.
"This for that," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said at a Manhattan news conference. "That's bribery, plain and simple."
Around 5 p.m., Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she had accepted Benjamin's resignation as lieutenant governor.
The developer is not named in the indictment, but his description matches that of Harlem real-estate investor Gerald Migdol, who was arrested separately last year related to an alleged campaign finance scheme. Migdol's attorney, Jerry Goldfeder, declined comment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed Benjamin, a Democrat, surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning, and was later released on a $250,000 personal recognizance bond. He was ordered to remain in southern and eastern districts of New York -- which includes New York City and the surrounding area, but does not include Albany -- and portions of Virginia and Georgia, where he has pre-existing connections.
Benjamin did not speak to reporters as he left the federal courthouse and into a waiting vehicle Tuesday afternoon.
The developer, named as a co-conspirator in the indictment, gave Benjamin -- then a state senator representing Harlem-- three checks totaling $25,000 for his Senate campaign from people the co-conspirator was connected with, according to the indictment. He went on to gather numerous smaller donations for Benjamin's failed campaign for city comptroller in 2020 and 2021 in an attempt to boost public matching funds from the city, prosecutors allege.
Migdol is the founder of Friends of Public School Harlem, a non-profit that distributes backpacks and school supplies to school children. State records show the nonprofit was flagged for a $50,000 discretionary grant from the state Senate in 2019.
The indictment relies on text messages between Benjamin and the co-conspirator in which Benjamin appeared to take credit for securing the grant. Later, Benjamin presented Migdol with an oversized novelty check for the same $50,000 at a fundraising event. Williams said the grant was never ultimately distributed after it was secured.
Prosecutors also accused Benjamin of falsifying records as he was being vetted for lieutenant governor last year. When asked on a vetting form whether he had ever "directly exercised (his) governmental authority [...] concerning a matter of a donor (he) directly solicited," Benjamin had answered that he had not, prompting one of the five felony charges he faces, according to prosectuors.
The arrest comes amid a critical time for Hochul, who is now focused on a election campaign days after passing her first state budget.
Hochul appointed Benjamin to his position as lieutenant governor in late August, a few weeks after she took office and eight months after The City first reported on issues with straw donations to Benjamin's comptroller campaign. His appointment put him in a position to become governor should Hochul resign or be unable to serve.
Last month, Benjamin was subpoenaed in connection to records related to the alleged scheme. Just last week, Hochul stood behind him when he admitted he did not personally inform Hochul of subpoenas related to a similar probe before she appointed him.
“I have the utmost confidence in my lieutenant governor,” Hochul said Thursday. “This is an independent investigation related to other people, and he is fully cooperating.”
At the same news conference last Thursday, a reporter suggested Benjamin wasn't truthful on his vetting forms. "That's not true," Benjamin said.
By Thursday evening, Hochul said Benjamin's resignation was in the best interest of the state. It took effect immediately.
"While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor," she said in a statement. "New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them."
Includes reporting by Gwynne Hogan and Brigid Bergin. The article has been updated to include details from the news conference by the Southern District of New York and Benjamin's appearance inside federal court.