Josefa Velasquez, Clifford Michel, and Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
Federal prosecutors allege the former state senator participated in “bribery” with donor charged with scamming NYC’s public matching funds system.
New York Lt. Gov Brian Benjamin surrendered to federal authorities Tuesday morning and has been indicted over his role in a campaign finance scheme related to his previous runs for office.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York will detail the charges facing the Harlem lawmaker later today at a press conference, according to a spokesperson.
Benjamin faces five charges for bribery and other “related offenses” tied to his involvement in a scheme to secure campaign contributions in exchange for securing a $50,000 state grant for one of his major donors.
THE CITY first brought the suspicious donations into public view in January 2021, after campaign finance filings from Benjamin’s campaign for New York City comptroller showed stacks of money orders sent to the campaign via a Harlem philanthropist, Gerald Migdol — including in the names of multiple people who said they did not give.
One was Midgol’s 2-year-old grandson, THE CITY found. Migdol was indicted late last year in connection with the scheme, which prosecutors say aimed to extract public dollars from New York City’s campaign finance matching funds program by booking eligible contributions
A spokesperson for Benjamin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gov. Kathy Hochul demurred when asked by THE CITY at a news conference on Tuesday’s subway shooting in Brooklyn.
“I’ll be happy to report on that later today, we will have a statement out there. I have not had a chance to speak to him later. I was doing media interviews this morning. But this is not the place but we will be addressing it very shortly,” said Hochul. “Let’s focus on the fact that there are people in a hospital right now fighting for their lives , those are the people we’re thinking about and praying for at this moment.”
Hochul, who herself had served as lieutenant governor, tapped Benjamin to replace her last year after she ascended to the top job following the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Last week, the governor stood firmly by her lieutenant governor amid reports that he was being investigated by federal officials and withheld information from her office.
“I have the utmost confidence in the lieutenant governor,” Hochul said at a budget-announcement news conference in Albany last Thursday alongside Benjamin — stating that he would continue to be her running mate in the June primary and the November general election.
Benjamin has submitted petitions to run for election to the job Hochul appointed to, and cannot be removed from the ballot unless he leaves New York.
Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters at the State Capitol in early April that she was “not aware” that Benjamin’s campaign had been subpoenaed prior to his appointment.
Benjamin acknowledged to reporters last week that he didn’t tell Hochul or her office that he had been subpoenaed months before her office was vetting him for the job.
“The State Police did a thorough investigation, I participated in that,” Benjamin said. “I followed the process as it was supposed to be followed.”
Federal prosecutors allege that Benjamin provided “false information” in the vetting forms he submitted while under consideration for lieutenant governor.
Benjamin, who represented Harlem from 2017 in the State Senate until being tapped by Hochul last summer, was investigated by prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District and the FBI over phony contributions to his failed 2021 city comptroller run.
In recent months, the scope of the investigation grew to include state grants Benjamin directed to a non-profit tied to a campaign donor during his time in the Legislature, with prosecutors issuing multiple subpoenas to Senate officials and state agencies.
Last year, the Manhattan DA’s office also subpoenaed Benjamin’s comptroller campaign for fundraising records.
According to the indictment, Benjamin faces five charges, including bribery and honest services wire fraud and falsification of records.
Benjamin conspired to obtain campaign contributions from Gerald Migdol, a real estate developer, by using his official authority as a state senator to obtain a $50,000 grant for a non-profit, Friends of Harlem Public Schools, that Migdol controlled, according to the indictment, which was filed by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams and unsealed Tuesday.
The indictment alleges that Benjamin was aware that Migdol was providing him with illegal donations by secretly funding “pass through” contributions.
Some predated the comptroller campaign. In 2019, Migdol used two relatives’ names and a limited liability corporation he controlled to steer three donations totaling $25,000 to Benjamin’s senate campaign. Migdol forged the signatures of the two relatives on campaign contribution forms in front of Benjamin, the indictment states.
In response, prosecutors allege, Benjamin arranged for the senate to disburse $50,000 in “discretionary funds” to Migdol’s non-profit Friends of Public Schools Harlem. Benjamin presented Migdol with an oversized check at an event posted to Facebook, signed by himself.
When Benjamin ran for city comptroller in 2019, Migdol — at Benjamin’s urging — continued raising money for him, this time in small donations so Benjamin would qualify for public matching funds. The indictment states that Migdol continued secretly funding these donations, including from individuals he would reimburse.
Prosecutors allege that more than once, Benjamin personally met Migdol — identified as “CC-1” in the indictment — to collect the contributions.
THE CITY first reported about Benjamin’s fundraising ploy in January 2021, as several listed donors said they had no idea who the then-State Senator was and had no recollection of ever donating to his campaign, despite records indicating that they had.
At the time of THE CITY’s expose of the bogus contributions, the Senate still hadn’t sent Migdol’s non-profit the $50,000 Benjamin had allocated. The indictment spells out that in response to THE CITY’s reporting, Migdol immediately stopped trying to get the discretionary funds.
Even after THE CITY’s report, Benjamin continued hitting up Migdol for support, calling up the developer and promising that if Migdol would write a check to a particular political committee, he would help him obtain a zoning variance that Benjamin warned would be “very difficult” to obtain.
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.
The indictment notes that the city Campaign Finance Board had raised questions about Benjamin’s fundraising in the comptroller’s race as early as November 2019.
In one case, CFB officials demanded more ownership information on LLCs that had made donations, including a $5,000 donation from the LLC controlled by Migdol called 163-67 E 115 LLC. Benjamin’s campaign provided CFB with information on some LLCs, but not Migdol’s.
And in February 2021, weeks after THE CITY’s report, CFB declined to provide matching funds to Benjamin’s comptroller campaign after raising questions about potentially suspicious donations because they were all funded by sequentially numbered money orders.
The day after THE CITY’s report highlighting multiple dubious donations, the Benjamin campaign issued in response what the indictment labeled a “misleading” letter to CFB claiming they had no reason to question the legitimacy of the donations.
In the letter, attorneys for the Benjamin campaign vowed to return a pool of 23 donations totaling $5,750 to the city Campaign Finance Board and claimed to only become aware of the issues after THE CITY questioned the donations. But Benjamin’s team ended up returning over $13,000 in donations from over 60 contributions on Feb. 25 — all made by money order.
Migdol was indicted in November for allegedly concealing campaign contributions to Benjamin’s campaign via individuals who had not authorized them, in an apparent effort to obtain more campaign cash through the city’s public matching funds program.
His then 2-year-old’s purported signature was found on a money order submitted by the campaign to New York City’s Campaign Finance Board and obtained by THE CITY, one of dozens of money order donations the Benjamin campaign returned following THE CITY’s reporting.
Some of the money orders, made via Moneygram and Western Union, didn’t include the name of the person reportedly making the donation.
Migdol, who was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, pleaded not guilty.
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