Federal investigators and the FBI are investigating Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin (D-NY) was involved in funneling illegal campaign contributions to his 2021 campaign to become comptroller in New York City. Federal agents have issued subpoenas to his comptroller campaign staff and the New York State Senate.
The federal campaign fraud investigation stems from a 2021 federal indictment of Gerald Migdol, a New York City real estate investor. Migdol was charged with ID theft and wire fraud, among other federal crimes. He was a years-long supporter of Benjamin and was accused of organizing a scheme to hide illegal contributions to the former’s campaign.
Benjamin has not been accused of federal crimes at this time and is not named in the federal indictment. However, federal prosecutors have issued several subpoenas from the grand jury demanding records from his campaign committee.
Federal prosecutors want documents and records having to do with Migdol and several people he knows. They also want to see how involved Benjamin was in his campaign’s money-raising efforts.
Prosecutors also are looking for records held by the State Senate where Benjamin represented Harlem from 2017 until the summer of 2021. That was when he was picked by Governor Kathy Hochul to be the next lt. governor.
Will Federal Inquiry Lead To Charges Against Benjamin?
It’s too early to say if the federal inquiry will lead to charges against the lieutenant governor. However, the mere existence of a federal investigation into an acting lieutenant governor can become a major political problem for Benjamin and the governor. Both are Democrats who are readying for a competitive primary in June this year.
The Senate subpoena was reported last week by The New York Daily News. That paper also stated that federal subpoenas went to the Dormitory Authority and Division Of The Budget. These agencies oversee NY state funding programs that legislators use to direct funds to projects in their areas.
The federal investigation is looking into whether Benjamin had state funding sent to benefit Migdol in exchange for illegal campaign contributions.
It isn’t known if Migdol agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors to offer information about Benjamin to obtain leniency. However, there are suggestions that Migdol may give helpful information to federal prosecutors, or might have entered into a deal about cooperating after he gave a not guilty plea in November 2021.
For instance, New York Times sources say two subpoenas that were part of the federal investigation into Benjamin were issued not long after Migdol was arrested. The Benjamin investigation is being overseen by the identical federal prosecutors who brought the federal case to Migdol.
Federal Case Gained Steam After Migdol Arrest
People familiar with the matter said a few months after the Migdol arrest, the case gathered steam. The judge was asked to delay a regular pretrial conference for two months to allow parties to talk about the federal case.
If he is convicted, Migdol could get up to 20 years in federal prison for the wire fraud charge and at least two years for aggravated ID theft.
When reported asked about the federal investigation, Benjamin’s campaign staff referenced a statement that was issued when Migdol was taken into custody last year. That statement read that Benjamin has not been accused of a crime and they will fully cooperate with the federal investigation.
Hochul Took Over The Governor’s Mansion In 2021
Hochul assumed the governorship in August 2021, saying there would be more transparency and ethics after Andrew Cuomo resigned during a major scandal. She chose Benjamin, 45, as her replacement for lieutenant governor, which was her initial act in office.
When the word got out about the federal investigation, her opposition attempted to link Hochul to Benjamin’s possible legal issues. This could be a preview of political attacks New Yorkers could see as Hochul determines if she needs to distance herself from Benjamin.
Hochul seemed to hope that choosing Harlem native Benjamin would boost her standing in New York City and with black voters.
Hochul has already been attacked by Long Island Democrat Tom Suozzi, who is challenging Hochul for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Benjamin Actions Have Raised Questions Before
This isn’t the first time there have been questions about Benjamin, but earlier cases didn’t get federal attention. In 2021, The Daily News reported there were several unusual expenditures in Benjamin’s senate campaign account, such as $6700 on services purchased at a Harlem music club in 2018. This was around the time that he had a wedding party at the club.
Benjamin’s campaign staff denied that the event at the jazz club was out of line, saying it was an event for political supporters.
In February, The Albany Times Union reported 12 cases where Benjamin wanted taxpayers to reimburse him for travel expenses when he went to and from Albany. This was the same time he was using a debit card from the campaign to pay for gasoline. But his campaign denied that the expenditures were inappropriate.
Questions about the funding of his 2021 comptroller campaign have percolated recently, as well. There were, for example, about 24 questionable campaign contributions worth $7000 that were delivered by someone associated with Migdol. Some of the contributions included money provided by several men who told the media they had never given money to his campaign.
After the investigation, Benjamin gave back the contributions, but he lost in the Democratic primary for comptroller last year.