Ameer Alonzo, Agnissan Achi and Silas Adedokun say they have no idea who State Sen. Brian Benjamin is — but city campaign finance records show them each giving the Harlem politician $250 in November 2019 as he readied a run for city comptroller.
That came as news to the three men.
“I’m struggling to make ends meet. So I never made a penny, a cent of a donation. I saw the letters stating I made a what — a $250 donation?” Achi said when contacted by THE CITY.
Achi was referring to a letter the New York City Campaign Finance Board mailed to his Harlem apartment asking him to confirm whether he made the contribution. The board record of his donation lists the safety officer as “unemployed.”
Adedokun, of Brooklyn, also had no clue how he ended up on the Benjamin donor list.
“I don’t know how they get my address. I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you — if I made a promise or made a pledge, I’m going to say to you I made a pledge. But, I never [did].”
Said Alonzo, of The Bronx: “It sounds like a scam…. This is just so random.”
The three men — and a toddler — are among 23 individuals who were recorded as giving donations to the Benjamin 2021 campaign fund via an intermediary named Michael Murphy. Each name is associated with a $250 money order, Campaign Finance Board records show.
THE CITY variously called and knocked on doors for each of the donors, listed in campaign records as residing in every borough except Staten Island.
Under New York City’s recently enhanced public campaign financing program, the first $100 of each of those donations is potentially eligible for $800 in taxpayer-supplied matching dollars. Donations must come from the named contributor’s own funds.
CFB records show Benjamin’s campaign identified 21 of the contributions Murphy steered to Benjamin as match-eligible — adding up to $16,800 in possible public dollars.
$250 From a Two-Year-Old
While some 2021 campaigns received their first wave of matching dollars from the CFB last month — including that of rival comptroller candidate Brad Lander — Benjamin did not get public funds, according to board records. The board is scheduled to release another round of money this month.
Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, said that reviews of campaigns’ matching funds claims are standard, including the use of verification letters like the one Achi received.
“During the course of regular audits of campaigns, the CFB may on occasion contact contributors to independently verify information provided by the campaign,” said Sollars in a statement.
The last of the Murphy-steered $250 contributions, made on Nov. 21, 2019, came from Desmond Valleo, listed as a “student.”
Public records and social media show Valleo was just 2 years old at the time. He is a grandson of Harlem real estate figure Jerry Migdol, whose charitable organization Friends of Public School Harlem lists Murphy as its treasurer.
Young people’s donations can’t be matched — and must be made with their consent, Sollars said.
“Contributions from a minor must come from their own funds and must be made by their own decision,” he told THE CITY. “By law, contributions from individuals under the age of eighteen years old are not eligible to be matched with public funds.”
Murphy and Midgol did not respond to requests for comment.
Another of the $250 money order donations brought to Benjamin by Murphy came from Migdol’s wife, Sheri Perl, records show. There is no indication that Migdol was aware of the pooled donations.
Videos posted to social media by the Midgol Organization show Murphy — a dance-music performer known for the hit “Don’t Disturb This Groove” — celebrating with Benjamin at a 2018 birthday party for the politician.
Our very own Mic Murphy performing at Senator Brian Benjamin’s Birthday Bash. # migdolnationPosted by Migdol Organization on Thursday, December 13, 2018
And just a few weeks before the November 2019 donations to Benjamin’s campaign via Murphy, Migdol received a “Community Leadership Award” from Harlem’s Frederick D. Samuel Community Democratic Club.
“I am grateful to my new friend — our great State Senator Brian Benjamin, the man who nominated me to receive this,” Migdol in said his acceptance speech, as posted to the Migdol Organization website.
Benjamin Vows to Return Funds
A spokesperson for Benjamin’s campaign, Tim Costa, told THE CITY that the campaign will review and return donations found to have been contributed improperly.
He said the campaign would give back the contributions given in the name of the three men who spoke to THE CITY, but did not say exactly to whom the money would go.
“Our campaign prides itself on following the letter and spirit of all fundraising regulations and we thank THE CITY for bringing this issue to our attention,” said Costa in a statement. “We will return any donation found to be improper and will continue to grow our grassroots donor base of over 2,000 hardworking New Yorkers, over two-thirds of whom have given $100 or less because they believe Brian should be the next comptroller.”
The New York City Campaign Finance Board can issue civil penalties for violations of the Campaign Finance Act after campaigns are given notice and time to respond, Sollars said.
“The CFB is committed to protecting the public’s investment in clean and fair elections in New York City. We are reviewing all campaign activity in the 2021 elections to ensure that campaigns are conducted in compliance with the law,” he added.
The board polices campaigns to make sure they do not accept donations made by behind-the-scenes sponsors using multiple other people’s names — known informally as “straw donors.”
An investigation into contributions to the 2013 mayoral campaign of then-comptroller and now State Sen. John Liu (D-Queens) led the board to block substantial sums, effectively ending his run. Liu’s campaign treasurer and fundraiser were convicted on attempted fraud and other charges in May 2013 and sentenced to prison.
Benjamin is currently in a four-way Democratic primary race vying to replace term-limited Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is running for mayor.
The other comptroller candidates are Lander, a Democratic Council member from Brooklyn, Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens) and State Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn).