Caribbean American New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, a candidate for Governor of New York in June’s Democratic Primary, on Tuesday strongly criticized Gov. Kathy Hochul after she accepted the resignation of Lieutenant Gov. Brian Benjamin on indictment of bribery and related offenses.
Damian Williams, another Caribbean American, who is the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced earlier on Tuesday that Benjamin, the son of a Guyanese mother and Jamaican father, was charged with bribery, honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to commit those offenses, “based on his use of his official authority while a New York state senator to direct a state-funded grant to an organization controlled by a real estate developer (‘CC-1’) in exchange for campaign contributions made and procured by CC-1”.
Benjamin, 45, who resigned shortly after prosecutors unsealed the indictment, pleaded not guilty at a short appearance in Federal District Court in Lower Manhattan. He was released on a US$250,000 bond.
“As Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul denied knowledge or awareness of Andrew Cuomo’s (former New York Governor wrongdoing,” said Williams, the son of Grenadian immigrants. “Now, she’s repeating the same posture and strategy with her own Lieutenant.
“Either she’s consistently shamefully out of the loop, or shamefully enabling through her inaction,” he added. “And, either way, it’s clear that, unless we elect leadership outside of the old ways of Albany, these patterns of scandal and corruption will keep repeating.
“Throughout our campaign, we’ve highlighted how the Hochul administration represented Albany’s dysfunctional status quo,” Williams continued. “She claims to have cleaned up the Capitol (Albany). But just this week, with historic handouts to Buffalo billionaires, donor-driven scandals and resignation, it’s never felt more familiar, or more clear, that we need drastic change.”
Hochul said in a brief statement late Tuesday that she was accepting 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,” said Hochul, who had appointed Benjamin, a former New York State Senator, representing Harlem, last August. “New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them.”
In announcing the charges against Benjamin, along with Michael J. Driscoll, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), and Jocelyn E. Strauber, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (“DOI”), Damian Williams, whose father is a Jamaican-born physician, said that the former New York Lieutenant Governor is also charged with two counts of falsifying records in connection with the preparation of contribution forms that falsely reported certain contributions made by CC-1 as being made by other individuals.
The former lieutenant governor is also charged with making false statements in a questionnaire he submitted while seeking to become lieutenant governor.
Benjamin, who surrendered to the FBI in Manhattan Tuesday morning, was presented before United States Magistrate Judge Ona T. Wang.
The case has been assigned to United States District Judge, J. Paul Oetken.
“As alleged, Brian Benjamin used his power as a New York state senator to secure a state-funded grant in exchange for contributions to his own political campaigns,” Damian Williams said. “By doing so, Benjamin abused his power and effectively used state funds to support his political campaigns.
“My office and our partners at the FBI and DOI will continue to ensure that politicians who put themselves over the public interest will be prosecuted,” he added.
Driscoll said: “Exploiting one’s official authority by allocating state funds as part of a bribe to procure donations to a political campaign, and engaging in activity to cover up the bribe, is illegal.
“As we allege today, Benjamin’s conduct in this scheme directly circumvents those procedures put in place to keep our systems fair,” Discoll added.
Strauber said: “As charged, Lieutenant Governor Benjamin, while a New York State senator, used his official position to obtain donations to his political campaigns.
“He allegedly allocated public grant funds to a non-profit controlled by a co-conspirator in exchange for campaign contributions, and then lied to hide this illegal scheme,” she said. “In so doing, he served his own interests at the expense of his constituents, a betrayal of the public trust and a violation of federal law.
“DOI stands with our law enforcement partners in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the FBI in the fight to expose and prevent corruption,” Strauber added.
According to the allegations in the indictment, from at least in or about 2019, up to and including at least in or about 2021, Benjamin participated in a scheme to obtain campaign contributions from CC-1 in exchange for Benjamin’s use of his official authority and influence as a New York State senator to obtain a US$50,000 state-funded grant (the “Grant”) for a non-profit organization controlled by CC-1 (“Organization-1”).
“Benjamin and others acting on his behalf, or at his direction, then engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up his scheme, including by falsifying campaign donor forms, misleading city regulators, and providing false information on vetting forms he completed while seeking to be the Lieutenant Governor of New York State,” the indictment alleges.
It says that in or about March 2019, Benjamin met with CC-1, told CC-1 that he was running for the office of New York City Comptroller, and asked that CC-1 procure a number of small-dollar contributions from different individuals for that campaign (the “Comptroller Campaign”).
According to the indictment, CC-1 told Benjamin that CC-1 did not have experience bundling political contributions in that manner; that CC-1 focused CC-1’s fundraising efforts on Organization-1; and that CC-1’s ability to procure numerous contributions for Benjamin’s Comptroller Campaign was limited, including because potential donors from whom CC-1 was likely to solicit contributions were the same donors from whom CC-1 had solicited and intended to further solicit contributions for Organization-1.
In response, Benjamin told CC-1, according to the indictment, “Let me see what I can do.”
In or about February 2019, before the above-described meeting, the indictment says Benjamin had formally requested funding from the Majority Leader of the New York State Senate for certain organizations and entities in his district, including another Harlem-based educational organization (“Organization-2”).
The indictment says Organization-1 was not on that list, even though Benjamin had been aware of Organization-1 and its educational work since at least 2018.
Damian Williams said that Benjamin is charged 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 five years in prison; and two counts of falsification of records, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Benjamin’s attorneys, James D. Gatta and William J. Harrington, said in a statement on Tuesday that Benjamin was suspending his campaign for lieutenant governor to “focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable, not criminal,” adding that there was “nothing inappropriate” about the US$50,000 grant.
They also said that their client “looks forward to when this case is finished, so he can rededicate himself to public service.”