New York lieutenant governor resigns after bribery charges

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By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, the state's No. 2 official after Governor Kathy Hochul, resigned on Tuesday after being charged with bribery and fraud for allegedly directing state funds toward a real estate developer in exchange for campaign contributions.

Hochul, who handpicked Benjamin for the lieutenant governor's job last August, announced the resignation a few hours after the 45-year-old Benjamin pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges in a five-count indictment.

"While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as lieutenant governor," Hochul said in a statement. "New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them."

Benjamin's resignation is effective immediately, Hochul said. Lawyers for Benjamin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors said Benjamin in 2019 directed a $50,000 state grant to a non-profit controlled by the developer from the Harlem section of Manhattan, which Benjamin represented at the time as a state senator.

The developer then sent Benjamin's reelection campaign thousands of dollars through several checks in the names of relatives and a limited liability company, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said the developer also raised money for Benjamin's unsuccessful 2021 run to become New York City's comptroller.

"Taxpayer money for campaign contributions. Quid pro quo. This for that. That's corruption," said Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. "Public corruption remains a problem in New York. It is a bipartisan problem. It is an ongoing problem."

The Harlem real estate developer was not identified by name in the indictment.

Just over two months after Benjamin became lieutenant governor, real estate developer Gerald Migdol was criminally charged with steering illegal campaign contributions to an unnamed candidate for city comptroller. Migdol pleaded not guilty.

Benjamin faces charges including bribery, wire fraud and falsification of records. His case and Migdol's are in the same case file.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ona Wang released Benjamin on $250,000 bond, and imposed travel restrictions that left him unable to travel to Albany, New York's state capital, without permission from authorities.

Benjamin is next due to appear in court on April 19.

The charges could complicate Hochul's reelection bid in November.

Hochul, a Democrat who had been lieutenant governor, replaced Andrew Cuomo as governor last August, when he resigned following an inquiry that found that he had sexually harassed 11 women.

She faces challenges from New York City Comptroller Jumaane Williams and Long Island U.S. Congressman Tom Suozzi for Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Berkrot)