New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin arrested in campaign finance scheme, accused of directing $50,000 to political ally

NEW YORK — New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin was arrested Tuesday by federal authorities to face campaign finance fraud charges related to his failed city comptroller bid.

Benjamin is expected to appear in Manhattan federal court later Tuesday, and prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York will detail the charges at a news conference, the New York Daily News has learned.

The indictment accuses Benjamin of conspiring to direct $50,000 in state funds to longtime political ally Gerald Migdol, who in turn steered thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to the then-state senator’s 2021 comptroller campaign.

The arrest comes weeks after the Daily News first reported that federal investigators had issued subpoenas seeking information about grants Benjamin doled out as a senator. The Democrat was still serving in the Senate representing Harlem last year when his campaign for New York City comptroller drew the attention of investigators.

The FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York arrested the lawmaker’s longtime ally Migdol in November 2021, accusing him of facilitating phony donations intended to boost Benjamin’s campaign war chest to receive public matching funds.

According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday, Benjamin steered a $50,000 grant to an educational nonprofit led by Migdol, a Harlem real estate developer, in 2019.

In so doing, Benjamin “abused his authority as a New York State senator, engaging in a bribery scheme using public funds for his own corrupt purposes,” the charging document alleges.

According to federal prosecutors, Benjamin also “engaged in a series of lies” to cover up his misdeeds. The indictment alleges that Benjamin was fully aware that a straw donor scheme was organized to bundle funds for his comptroller bid.

According to prosecutors, he also promised to help Migdol obtain a zoning variance approval in return for contributions.

Following The News’ disclosures about the investigation, Benjamin admitted last week that he did not tell Gov. Kathy Hochul that he was aware his 2021 comptroller campaign had been subpoenaed before his appointment to his current post.

Breaking his silence for the first time since The News first reported that federal investigators were probing his past grants, Benjamin maintained his innocence and said he was cooperating with authorities.

“I’m fully supportive of their efforts,” Benjamin told The News as he read from a prepared statement during a brief interview in a hallway at the State Capitol. “I have provided all information that they have requested and will continue to do so if they have any further requests.”

Throughout the weekend, Benjamin presided over the Senate, one of the formal duties of his position, as lawmakers debated and voted on the state budget.

Hochul -- who has yet to comment on Benjamin’s arrest -- chose Benjamin as her second-in-command last summer when she replaced disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned following multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Earlier in the week, Hochul likewise said she was not alerted to the investigations by Benjamin.

Still, as of last week, the governor expressed support for her embattled right-hand man and running mate.

“I have utmost confidence in my lieutenant governor,” Hochul said. “He is my running mate.”

The arrest Tuesday marks the latest chapter in Benjamin’s ongoing issues in the arena of campaign finance.

Despite his repeated claim that he “followed the process,” Benjamin faced criticism after providing incorrect information on an initial background check submitted to the governor’s office and state police as part of the vetting process for his current position, as first reported by The News.

On his initial background form, signed and dated Aug. 16, Benjamin reported he hadn’t been contacted by “a regulatory body concerning any possible legal, regulatory, ethical, or campaign finance, infraction or violation or investigation.”

He had, in fact, been contacted by the state Elections Board over his use of campaign funds, and federal prosecutors were already looking at donations made to his city comptroller campaign.

In January, financial disclosure reports revealed that Benjamin quietly coughed up roughly $25,000 to cover car loan payments and other personal expenses initially charged to his old Senate campaign account.

In addition to thousands in gas money, the lieutenant governor paid back $14,000, covering monthly car loan payments made between 2017 and 2021.

He also reimbursed the account for a “non-fund-raising event held at Minton’s Playhouse” in 2018 that Benjamin has oscillated between describing as a wedding celebration and a purely political event.

Hochul was one of several top Democrats who attended the function at the Harlem nightclub, a month after Benjamin and his wife tied the knot in Virginia.