Photo Credit: Courtesy
Hochul and Benjamin in August 2021.

In less than eight months, the highest seat of New York government is in turmoil once again and as before the head of state claims not to know anything about what was going on.

Governor Kathy Hochul (D-Buffalo, Erie County) claims to have been blindsided by the arrest of her lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, on Tuesday, April 12. She accepted Benjamin’s resignation the same day.

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“While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as lieutenant governor,” Hochul wrote in a prepared statement just five days after declaring her confidence in Benjamin, 45, as her number two. “New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government and I will continue working every day to deliver for them.”

Hochul also claimed she had no idea her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, was having overt touchy-feely moments with several women who maintain he overstepped the boundaries of their personal space.

At least one member of the state Assembly wants answers.

“It’s what they said about Nixon, in this case, what did she (Hochul) know and when did she know it?” asked Assemblyman Eric “Ari” Brown (R-Cedarhurst, Nassau County), 54, the first Republican Orthodox Jew in the Assembly. “It was so well-known that the feds had him in their sights [as early as November 2019]. Everybody knew that. This guy was dirty from the beginning and everybody knew it. What does that say about her (Hochul)? She’s either totally incompetent, showed a poor lack of judgement, or she just tolerates corruption. Which one could it be? Her first big hire, she hired a thief.”

Brown, who won a special election to the Assembly seat on Thursday, April 7, is also the deputy mayor of Cedarhurst, a position he told The Jewish Press he will not relinquish while he serves in the Assembly.

At least one Senate Democrat was not upset to see Benjamin resign his position as lieutenant governor.

“As elected officials, we are held to a higher standard of conduct, and there can be no room for even the appearance of wrongdoing that would betray the public trust,” Senator Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck, Nassau County) wrote in a prepared statement. “The allegations against Lt. Governor Benjamin are serious, disturbing, and if true, reflect conduct that is incompatible with public service in New York.”

While many Jewish elected officials in the Assembly and Senate did not want to offer any comments for The Jewish Press, one member in the Assembly did take up the challenge.

“It’s a serious matter. You have to take it seriously but you know there still is the presumption of innocence,” Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Hollis, Queens) told The Jewish Press. “I don’t know the details of the charges. He pled not guilty. I assume he’ll have a trial. He has a lawyer. Let the criminal justice system go forward and the facts will come out. Everybody’s innocent until proven guilty and I’ll give him the presumption of innocence at this point.”

Weprin said he is not interested in leaving his Assembly seat to replace Benjamin as lieutenant governor. Weprin campaigned against Benjamin in last year’s city comptroller’s race.

“I never really had a bad word to say about him during the race,” Weprin recalled. “He was a gentleman, we got along. We actually were involved in a lot of legislation in Albany, he in the Senate and me in the Assembly. I was shocked like everyone else about how it happened. I knew about that issue because it came up during the campaign. I had no reason to believe that he knew about the specifics of how the funds were used for matching funds and he denied it and I thought it was going to pretty much end at that. I wasn’t sure that it rose to the level of a federal investigation which obviously it was happening. It was going on and I was as surprised as everyone else.”

Benjamin is charged with a five-count indictment totaling 75 years in prison. He was released after posting bail in the amount of $250,000. He was charged by federal authorities with one count of federal program bribery, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; one count of honest services wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; one count of conspiracy to commit those offenses, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison; and two counts of falsification of records, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

“This is a simple story of corruption,” said the United States Attorney for the Southern District, Damian Williams. “We allege Mr. Benjamin struck a corrupt deal with a real estate developer, referred to in the indictment as CC1 [Gerald Migdol].

“Benjamin allegedly directed a $50,000 state grant to a non-profit organization that is controlled by [Migdol]. In exchange, Benjamin received tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from [Migdol]. Those contributions were directed to both Benjamin’s state Senate campaign committee and to Benjamin’s NYC comptroller campaign. Taxpayer money for campaign contributions is a quid pro quo – this for that. That’s bribery plain and simple.

“We also allege that Benjamin repeatedly lied to cover up the bribery scheme, including by falsifying campaign forms and misleading city regulators. We also allege that Benjamin repeatedly lied on the vetting forms that he filled out before he was appointed Lt. Governor. That’s a cover-up.

“Public corruption erodes people’s confidence and faith in government but the Southern District of New York will never give up on trying to root it out because our only obligation is to uphold the rule of law,” Williams concluded.

“As today’s allegations underscore, public funds that support grants cannot be used as currency to boost a candidate’s fundraising, and candidates must provide accurate information regarding their contributions and how they are made. Honesty on these issues is not negotiable,” said the commissioner of the NYC Department of Investigations, Jocelyn Strauber. “The charges also illustrate the importance of compliance with city campaign fundraising rules and candor with the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which enforces those rules. The lies and deception alleged here frustrate its work and deprive New Yorkers of accurate information with respect to political contributions.”

Benjamin’s attorneys, James Gatta and William Harrington, issued a statement shortly after their client was released on bail.

“The $50,000 grant Benjamin ‘supported’ went to cover school supplies for students in Harlem. He will focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable – not criminal,” Gatta wrote. “He looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service.”

Now it’s time for Hochul to choose another lieutenant governor. She promised to do a better job vetting her next number two, possibly a placeholder until the end of the year. The staffers in the Executive Chamber who were responsible for giving the green light to choose Benjamin after the State Police conducted its own vetting process have been reassigned to other positions.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.