New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin has resigned after he surrendered to authorities to face campaign finance fraud-related charges in connection with a past campaign, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced.
"I have accepted Brian Benjamin's resignation effective immediately. While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor. New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them," Hochul said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Following news of his resignation, Benjamin's attorneys, James D. Gatta and William Harrington issued a statement calling his actions "laudable -- not criminal."
"There has never been a federal case like this in America," the statement said. B"rian supported a $50,000 grant to Friends of Public School Harlem. Every dollar was to buy supplies for public school students in Harlem. There was nothing inappropriate about this grant."
The statement continued: "After today’s charges, Brian will resign his duties as Lieutenant Governor and suspend his campaign. He will focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable—not criminal.
He looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service."
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Benjamin, a Democrat, was charged with bribery, fraud, conspiracy and falsification of records in an alleged scheme to obtain campaign contributions from a real estate developer in exchange for Benjamin’s agreement to use his influence as a state senator to get a $50,000 grant of state funds for a nonprofit organization the developer controlled.
Facing charges including bribery, fraud, conspiracy and falsification of records, Benjamin pleaded not guilty Tuesday at an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court. He was released and bail was set at $250,000.
The lieutenant governor appeared in Manhattan federal court Tuesday afternoon, and left without talking to reporters.
His arrest comes after reports that Manhattan federal prosecutors and the FBI were investigating whether Benjamin knowingly engaged in a campaign finance fraud scheme. Subpoenas were issued in connection with the investigation, two sources familiar with the subpoenas said at the time.
The indictment said Benjamin, formerly a state senator from Harlem, and others acting at his direction or on his behalf also engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme that stretched from 2019 to 2021.
They falsified campaign donor forms, misled municipal regulators and provided false information in vetting forms Benjamin submitted while he was being considered to be appointed as lieutenant governor, the indictment said.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney and a spokesman for the FBI both previously declined WNBC requests for comment regarding the investigation into Benjamin. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins also did not return requests for comment.
New York Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger called on Benjamin to resign before it was announced he would do so, saying the charges against him "represent a serious breach of the public trust" and that he could "no longer retain the confidence of his colleagues in government or the voters." Until that point, she was among the highest-ranking state lawmakers to call for his resignation.
Benjamin was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2021, shortly after losing a primary bid for New York City comptroller. He previously served as the New York State Senator for District 30, which is made up of Harlem, East Harlem (El Barrio), the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Morningside Heights.
The investigation into Benjamin came after the FBI arrested his fundraiser, Gerald Migdol, in November. He is charged with wire fraud in connection with an alleged campaign fraud scheme linked to past Benjamin fundraising.
A lawyer for Migdol did not return requests for comment.
After the indictment was announced, the New York City Campaign Finance Board said in a statement that no public funds were issued to Benjamin's campaign.
"The CFB's audit reviews identified potentially fraudulent contributions prior to issuing any public funds payments," the CFB said. "Those contributions were not matched with public funds, nor did they factor into the campaign qualifying for public funds payments."
Following the confirmation that Benjamin was being investigated, the lieutenant governor's office referred questions to its Nov. 19 press statement issued at the time of Migdol's arrest in which it said it was prepared to cooperate.
"Neither Lieutenant Governor Benjamin nor his campaign are being accused of any wrongdoing and they are prepared to fully cooperate with authorities," it said. "As soon as the campaign discovered that these contributions were improperly sourced, they donated them to the Campaign Finance Board, pursuant to guidance obtained from the CFB."
NEW YORK POLITICAL SCANDALS
Benjamin's arrest is just the latest scandal in New York's political realm.
Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful politicians in the state for decades before being ousted and sent to prison on corruption charges, fall from grace was also due to misconduct.
Silver, who passed away behind bars in earlier this year, at one time was one of the three most powerful state officials in New York. He was the Assembly’s leader for more than two decades before his abrupt ouster in 2015 after the corruption allegations emerged.
He was ultimately convicted in a scheme that involved a type of illegal back-scratching that has long plagued Albany. He supported legislation that benefited real estate developers he knew. In return, they referred tax business to a law firm that employed Silver, which then paid him fees.
Additionally, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also faced a political scandal that lead him to resign amid sexual harassment allegations.
While Cuomo stepped down last year, it appears he is contemplating a political comeback and dangling the possibility he may run for his former job just six months after he resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
Cuomo gave a campaign-style speech in March to a friendly audience of about 100 people in the Bronx, where he framed his fall from power as “cancel culture” run amok.
Asked after his speech if he would run for office, Cuomo told reporters he is “open to all options.” He also commented on a recent poll that showed him competitive in a hypothetical New York primary, saying that he found the results "gratifying, but I've never lived by the polls."
Below is a list of other high-ranking New York officials who have resigned or faced jail time in the wake of scandal:
- Oct. 17, 1913 - In the history of the state, only one governor has ever been impeached. William Sulzer, the 39th governor of New York, had been in the seat for less than a year before he was impeached after being accused of failing to report thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and commingling campaign funds with personal funds. He was convicted by a special court and removed from office on Oct. 17, 1913.
- Dec. 22, 2006 – NYS Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigns and pleads guilty to a felony charge of defrauding the government; later charges result in a prison sentence.
- March 12, 2008 - Governor Eliot Spitzer announces his resignation, effective March 17, after being caught in a prostitution sting in Washington, DC. (His successor, David Paterson, had several scandals of his own, including accusations of perjury, witness tampering and even rumors of sex and drug escapades that were never proven, but they did not lead to his resignation.)
- July 18, 2008 - NYS Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno resigns his Senate seat, after stepping down as Senate leader on June 24, amid federal corruption charges; later convicted on two felony counts. The US Supreme Court overturned his conviction; a later retrial resulted in acquittal.
- June 20, 2011 - Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner -- a once-rising star in the Democratic Party who served nearly 12 years in Congress -- had a dramatic and sordid fall from grace after he sent a lewd picture of himself over Twitter in 2011 and resigned after the behavior came to light.
- Jan. 30, 2015 - NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver resigns as Speaker, effective February 2, following his arrest on federal corruption charges. Later that year, he is convicted on seven counts. Although that conviction was overturned, he was convicted again in a later trial. He is currently in federal prison.
- May 11, 2015 – Dean Skelos steps down from his position as Majority Leader of the NYS Senate, a week after his arrest on federal corruption charges along with his son. Later that year, he was convicted, automatically losing his seat. An appeals court overturned his conviction, but he was found guilty again on retrial. Last year he was released from prison to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest after testing positive for COVID.
- May 7, 2018 – NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigns hours after the New Yorker published an article detailing allegations of physical abuse.