Brian Benjamin Bribery Charges Dismissed but Criminal Case Proceeds
Campaign finance scheme first exposed by THE CITY wasn’t enough for prosecutors to bring fraud or graft charges against the former lieutenant governor, judge rules.
A federal judge on Monday tossed out three bribery and fraud charges in the government’s case against former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, citing lack of evidence to prove a “quid pro quo” with a major donor to Benjamin’s political campaigns.
The prosecution will continue on two lesser charges alleging falsification of records.
THE CITY first brought to light campaign donations made in the names of people who say they had no idea they’d donated, which were submitted by a Benjamin associate who has already pleaded guilty to federal bribery and fraud charges. He’s now cooperating with federal prosecutors.
The feds alleged that Benjamin had arranged for a grant to the supporter’s Harlem nonprofit in exchange for campaign donations — including contributions intended to unlock generous matching funds from the government.
In July, Benjamin’s lawyers moved to dismiss all five charges, arguing the U.S. Dept. of Justice hadn’t met tough legal standards for proving bribery and fraud when it comes to political campaign donations.
Judge J. Paul Oetken agreed in part, writing in his opinion that the government had failed in its indictment to show an “explicit quid pro quo, which is an essential element of the bribery and honest services wire fraud charges brought against Benjamin.”
Oetken dismissed three of the five charges against Benjamin: bribery, honest services wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services wire fraud.
The judge declined to dismiss the two lesser charges, which allege falsification of records for Benjamin’s state Senate campaign, and for a state appointment questionnaire he filled out in Sept. 2021, before Gov. Kathy Hochul named him lieutenant governor.
Here, the judge rejected Benjamin’s argument that because he hasn’t committed bribery, legally speaking, he couldn’t be charged with trying to cover up a bribe, noting a prior case in which a defendant was “acquitted of the crime charged, but convicted of seeking to obstruct the investigation of the crime he never committed.”
Benjamin resigned from his post as lieutenant governor on April 12, 2022 — the day the indictment against him was announced. By that point, he was already in the process of getting on the ballot petitions to run for the post in the June Democratic primary election.
“From the very beginning, we said we are shocked and dismayed that the prosecution would bring such flimsy and unwarranted charges based on nothing more than routine fundraising and support of a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools,” Benjamin’s attorneys, Barry Berke and Dani James, said in a statement.
“Today’s decision shows how these wrongful charges so harmed Mr. Benjamin and unfairly cost him his position as Lt. Governor,” the statement continued. “The dismissal of this now discredited bribery theory also makes clear how the indictment was a direct assault on the democratic process.”
Officials in the office of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney didn’t respond to an email and voice message seeking comment.
Prosecutors alleged that Benjamin had sought to allocate $50,000 in state grant dollars to the nonprofit, Friends of Public School Harlem, founded by Harlem real estate figure Jerry Migdol, in exchange for Migdol securing small-dollar contributions for Benjamin’s 2021 campaign for city comptroller.
Small-dollar donors are key to securing the maximum amount of public matching money from the city’s Campaign Finance Board — which pays at a rate of 8-to-1, up to certain limits.
Within a month of the grant allocation, Migdol personally handed Benjamin two $10,000 campaign contributions — both in the names of relatives — and a third check for $5,000 in the name of an LLC he controlled, according to prosecutors. Migdol made clear the money, earmarked for Benjamin’s state Senate campaign, was actually coming from him, the indictment alleged.
Once Benjamin set up his campaign for city comptroller, he allegedly called Migdol around October 2019 to remind him of the need for multiple small-dollar contributions, the court papers alleged. Migdol subsequently secured a series of smaller donations to Benjamin’s campaign from October 2019 through January 2021, according to prosecutors.
In January 2021, THE CITY first revealed suspicious patterns in the donations, including numerous money orders for $250 that went through Michael Murphy, treasurer of Friends of Public School Harlem.
Multiple people listed as donors told THE CITY that they did not donate and had no idea why they were listed as donors. Also among the listed donors was Migdol’s 2-year-old grandson.
In his 38-page ruling, Oetken said he had to wrestle with a number of issues that earlier court rulings hadn’t fully resolved — including determining which legal precedents apply to the Benjamin case.
He ultimately relied on a Supreme Court ruling in a 1991 case against a West Virginia legislator that Oetken said doesn’t allow for convictions involving solely “implicit” agreements.
Oetken said a subsequent ruling that apparently lowered the bar prosecutors needed to meet isn’t applicable to cases involving campaign dollars.
“The Court concludes that, for criminal liability for bribery in the context of campaign contributions, there must be a quid pro quo that is clear and unambiguous, meaning that (1) the link between the official act and the payment or benefit — the pro — must be shown by something more than mere implication, and (2) there must be a contemporaneous mutual understanding that a specific quid and a specific quo are conditioned upon each other,” the judge wrote. “An official act taken in the hope that it will yield campaign contributions is not a bribe; it is a basic aspect of the American political system.”
Oetken said the government’s case failed another legal test, which holds that the quid pro quo agreement needs to be in place before the government official performs the act at the heart of a deal.
In the Benjamin case, the timeline that prosecutors laid out didn’t establish that some sort of deal was in place until after Benjamin had secured the $50,000 grant for Friends of Public School Harlem.
A day after the Senate passed a resolution approving the funds, Benjamin texted Migdol a screenshot of his nonprofit listed as a recipient of the money, according to the indictment.
Migdol texted back, “Does it mean what I’m hoping?”
“Oh yes it does,” Benjamin responded, according to the indictment. “$50K. I will call to discuss.”
The $50,000 grant never materialized. “Local news reports began to question the legitimacy of donations to Benjamin’s Comptroller campaign and the grant was therefore never disbursed,” wrote Oetken.
False Information Allegations
The two charges that Oetken left intact had to do with allegedly false information Benjamin was involved in supplying on government forms.
The first stemmed from his allegedly directing Migdol in July 2019 to fill out and sign campaign contribution forms in the name of relatives when Benjamin allegedly knew the money was coming from Migdol himself.
The second was when he filled out the vetting documents for his role as lieutenant governor and reported that he never “directly exercised [his] governmental authority…concerning a matter of a donor [he] directly solicited,” according to the court papers.
The ruling comes as the Supreme Court considers an appeal on another high-profile New York political corruption case, against a top aide to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Joe Percoco. The high court’s decision in that case could further raise the bar for corruption convictions of government officials, according to legal experts.
In oral arguments last week, the justices heard Percoco’s claim that because he was on leave from the Cuomo administration and working on the former governor’s reelection campaign while accepting funds from companies engaged in state business, it did not constitute public corruption.