How Brian Benjamin and a Campaign Donor Attempted a Taxpayer-Funded Gift Swap
The former lieutenant governor and Harlem real estate owner Gerald Migdol tried to trade grants and campaign funds subsidized by state and local government — only to be thwarted once THE CITY and authorities investigated.
In May 2017 Brian Benjamin won his first term as a state Senator representing parts of Harlem. That same year he met real estate developer Gerald Migdol, the man who is now listed as co-conspirator 1 in the bribery indictment brought Tuesday by the Manhattan U.S. attorney.
By the time he met Benjamin, Migdol — an attorney licensed to practice law in New York — was also part of a law firm that specialized in foreclosure cases and living high up in a luxury Upper West Side condo tower called Ariel West.
Since 2014 he’s also controlled a nonprofit called Friends of Public School Harlem that financially supported schools in the neighborhood by paying for iPads and computers for their “top performing students.” Tax forms show that as of the end of 2020, he was listed as the group’s unpaid president.
The paper trail leading to the indictment of Brian Benjamin and his resignation Tuesday as lieutenant governor shows an alleged scheme years in the making — including many details first reported by THE CITY based on campaign finance filings in his run last year for city comptroller.
And it paints a portrait of two Harlem players seeking to advance their mutual interests with the help of government money.
Migdol is himself under federal indictment in connection with contributions prosecutors allege he made to the campaign through other individuals after Benjamin urged him to deliver small contributions to maximize public matching dollars.
He and his family were also prolific donors to local political campaigns, and so on March 8, 2019, then Sen. Benjamin met with Migdol in the supporter’s residence and revealed he planned to run for city comptroller. Benjamin asked the lawyer if he would collect — “bundle” — small contributions up to $250 from multiple donors, each of which was potentially eligible to be matched with public funds by a ratio of eight to one.
Migdol, the indictment alleges, said he had little experience bundling and that such a task would require him to raise money from the same donors who contributed to his nonprofit. Benjamin, the indictment states, told Migdol: “Let me see what I can do.”
By then, Benjamin had already requested an allotment of what are called “discretionary funds” from the Senate leadership — money individual elected officials get for their pet projects. Migdol’s group was not part of Benjamin’s initial request for this money, while another non-profit in Harlem with an “educational purpose” was.
That May 30, the Senate informed members they would be allotted extra discretionary funds for educational programs. The next day Benjamin told Migdol he was intending to steer $50,000 to Friends of Public School Harlem. The other nonprofit on Benjamin’s list then fell out of the picture.
About a month later, the Senate passed a resolution that included a $50,000 allocation to Friends of Public School Harlem. The sponsor was listed publicly only as the “Senate” and did not mention Benjamin.
A day later Benjamin texted Migdol a screenshot of a list with Friends listed as the recipient of the funds, the indictment states.
Migdol texted back, “Does it mean what I’m hoping?”
“Oh yes it does,” Benjamin responded. “$50K. I will call to discuss.”
As the relationship deepened between donor and politician, Benjamin came to accept donations from Migdol that he knew were illegal, the indictment alleges. These contributions were secretly funded by Migdol through a technique known as “pass through” donations.
During a July 8, 2019 meeting in Benjamin’s district office in Harlem, Migdol handed the politician three checks for his Senate campaign: two $10,000 checks under the names of two of Migdol’s relatives and one $5,000 check written by an anonymous limited liability corporation he controlled.
Migdol “made clear” to Benjamin that he was the true source of the checks attributed to his relatives, and in front of Benjamin, Migdol forged the signatures of the two relatives on campaign contribution forms, the indictment states.
Benjamin pocketed the checks, which ended up in his campaign fund.
The first signs of problems with Benjamin’s fundraising appear to have been red-flagged by the state Board of Elections. In November 2019, the BOE noted Benjamin had failed to list the actual owners of several LLCs that had made donations to his Senate campaign, including the $5,000 donation from the LLC controlled by Migdol called 163-67 E 115 LLC.
Soon after, Benjamin’s campaign provided the elections board with information on some LLCs — but not Migdol’s, the indictment states. The state BOE took no further action.
The $50,000 allocation from the Senate had still not actually been handed over to Migdol. Nonetheless, on Sept. 12, 2019, Benjamin presented Migdol with a symbolic oversized check for that amount during a fundraising event for Friends. The giant check was signed by Benjamin.
A week later, Benjamin filed papers notifying the city Board of Elections of his intent to run for comptroller. This allowed him to begin raising funds for that campaign, and a few weeks later, Benjamin reached out and instructed Migdol that he wanted him to raise small donations of up to $250 to qualify for matching funds.
Starting that October, Migdol got to work, collecting multiple small donations for Benjamin, some of which came from donors the feds allege he then reimbursed. Prosecutors do not allege that Benjamin was aware that Migdol was reimbursing these donors, but they do assert that on multiple occasions Benjamin personally collected the bundled money orders from Migdol — including one hand-off on a street corner.
At the time, Benjamin was open about his interactions with Migdol. He showed up, for instance, to celebrate Migdol’s 70th birthday at a Feb. 12, 2020 publicized event featuring multiple politicians, including Attorney General Letitia James and U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat.
“Jerry Migdol has given so much back to this community, particularly the children of Harlem,” Benjamin told the crowd. “We thank him for the difference he’s made in giving our children the chance to succeed.”
Benjamin continued hitting up Migdol for support — and that fall pitched an additional possible favor he could provide in return, prosecutors allege.
On Oct. 21, 2020, he called up the developer and promised that if Migdol would write a check to a particular political committee, he would help him obtain a zoning variance in Harlem that Migdol was seeking.
Benjamin warned the developer it would be “very difficult” to win approval from the local community board — which he once chaired — for his variance request, the indictment states.
The indictment does not name the committee, but records show that on November 13, 2020, Migdol wrote a $15,000 check to the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. The zoning variance was never granted.
By then, the city Campaign Finance Board had begun raising questions about Benjamin’s fundraising in the comptroller’s race.
A February 2020 CFB audit “identified potentially fraudulent contributions” that caused the board to deny Benjamin’s request for matching funds, according to CFB spokesperson Matthew Sollars. The donations raised suspicions because some were funded by sequentially numbered money orders.
At some point in 2020 the FBI, the city Department of Investigation and the U.S. attorney also began quietly looking into Benjamin’s fundraising, but the public didn’t get its first hint of Benjamin’s activities until Jan. 4, 2021.
That’s when THE CITY first uncovered this scheme, reporting that several contributors who’d allegedly made contributions to Benjamin’s comptroller campaign via money order were unaware they’d given to him.
Their campaign listed their donations, each for $250, as bundled by Michael Murphy, who is treasurer of Migdol’s group Friends of Public School Harlem, and several of the named donors were members of Migdol’s family — including his 2-year-old grandson.
The day after THE CITY’s report, Pitta LLP, a law firm Benjamin’s campaign retained, wrote to the Campaign Finance Board to state that the campaign had relied on its trust in Murphy.
The letter, obtained by THE CITY, identified Murphy as a “a well known and respected figure in the Harlem community.” Because of Murphy’s “reputation and affiliation with Friends,” Benjamin’s committee “did not have occasion to question the provenance or legitimacy of the intermediated contributions.”
In the indictment, federal prosecutors labeled this letter “misleading.” Benjamin, the indictment alleged, knew the donations were collected not by Murphy but by Migdol.
In the letter, Pitta said the campaign was immediately returning 23 Murphy-linked contributions referenced by THE CITY, totaling $5,750 — worth nearly $17,000 in matching funds. By Feb. 25, the campaign had returned dozens more contributions to the Campaign Finance Board, all made via money order, records show.
By the time of THE CITY’s 2021 report, the Senate still hadn’t sent Migdol’s nonprofit the $50,000 Benjamin had allocated. The indictment spells out that in response to THE CITY’s article, Migdol immediately stopped trying to get that money from the Senate. It has never been allocated.
In June 2021, Benjamin lost his bid for city comptroller, placing fourth in ranked-choice voting. Two months later on Aug. 12, then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul became Gov. Hochul following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo amid multiple scandals.
Soon Benjamin was on the short list to be her lieutenant governor. On Aug. 17, he submitted an executive appointment questionnaire.
In the form, prosecutors alleged, Benjamin “falsely stated” that he had never “directly exercised [his] governmental authority concerning a matter of a donor [he] directly solicited.” Two hours after submitting that form, Benjamin called Migdol “for the first time in six months,” the indictment states.
Hochul appointed him lieutenant governor Aug. 26, two days after she was officially sworn in.
The walls began to close in during the early morning hours of Nov. 19, when the FBI arrested Migdol, 71, and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams announced multiple counts of campaign finance fraud filed against him.
That indictment detailed multiple cases of the pass-through donations — including those first exposed by THE CITY — that Migdol used to support Benjamin’s failed comptroller bid.
Then on Nov. 29, after the Daily News reported that some of Benjamin’s answers on the questionnaire were not truthful, Benjamin submitted an addendum to the form.
The addendum, prosecutors stated, still contained his “false assertion” about never performing favors for a donor he’d directly solicited and that he’d never voted on “any specific matter that related to a particular donor.”
By then, prosecutors asserted, Benjamin “well knew he had exercised his official authority to allocate funds to” Migdol’s non-profit Friends of Public School Harlem “and had repeatedly directly solicited [Migdol] for campaign contributions.”
“This is a simple story of corruption,” Williams stated Tuesday in announcing the indictment against Benjamin.
“Benjamin struck a corrupt bargain with a real estate developer,” Williams asserted. “Taxpayer money for campaign contributions. Quid pro quo. That’s bribery, plain and simple.”
Shortly after Williams spoke, Benjamin appeared briefly before a federal judge, pleaded not guilty and was released on $250,000 bond — with the caveat that he restrict his travel to New York City, Long Island and the northern district of Georgia.
He was barred from traveling to Albany. By the end of Tuesday, he’d resigned as lieutenant governor.