New York State

Brian Benjamin argues to keep the dropped corruption charges dropped

Lawyers for the former lieutenant governor filed a new brief on Friday making the case that democracy itself hangs in the balance.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin speaks at Mt. Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem on Dec. 12, 2021.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin speaks at Mt. Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem on Dec. 12, 2021. Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of the Governor

In case you forgot, the corruption case against former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin is still ongoing, and his attorneys filed a brief on Friday making the case why a mid-level federal court should affirm the lower court’s decision to toss out the most serious charges against him. You’d be forgiven if you had forgotten – since Benjamin’s arrest and resignation last April, the one-time Upper Manhattan state Senator has kept a low profile while key legal wins over the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.  The latest legal filing shows him trying to hold onto that win, even as federal prosecutors appeal to move the case forward.

When a federal court dismissed the most serious bribery and wire fraud charges against Benjamin in December, the judge in the case determined that prosecutors failed to establish a clear quid pro quo, an explicit agreement by Benjamin to engage in an activity in exchange for campaign contributions. In other words, prosecutors had no “smoking gun,” so to speak, leaving U.S. District Court Judge J. Paul Oetken to throw out the charges as they relied on innuendo and implicit or unclear interactions between Benjamin and the donor in question, Gerald Migdol. 

At issue is a $50,000 state grant Benjamin awarded Migdol that the prosecution alleged came in exchange for contributions to what had then been Benjamin’s failed 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller. Migdol, a Harlem-based real estate developer, pleaded guilty to making illegal straw donations to Benjamin as part of a deal to flip on the former lieutenant governor.

The problem, however, is that prosecutors haven’t offered explicit evidence that Benjamin agreed to a deal. Now, as those same prosecutors seek to get an appeals court to revive the charges, Benjamin’s attorneys argue that the fundamentals of democracy hang in the balance.

“There is a reason campaign contributions are so rarely prosecuted as bribes, and have never been the sole basis for a prosecution in this Circuit,” his attorneys, led by Barry Berke, wrote in the brief. “Doing so without an explicit corrupt scheme risks upending our representative democracy and the political fundraising underlying it.” They argued that the federal government willfully misinterpreted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the benchmark to bring bribery cases based on political contributions rather than direct gifts. Benjamin’s attorneys wrote that reversing the lower court’s decision would “threaten to elide the distinction between legitimate political activity and truly corrupt bargains.”

As the mid-level court continues to consider the appeal by prosecutors on the bribery and wire fraud charges, the federal government has still been allowed to proceed on the lesser charges of falsification of records. But since the December ruling on the merits of the charges, little has changed on that front yet either. The most recent movement in the federal case against Benjamin came last week. Benjamin’s travel was restricted while the case played out, but the judge granted granted him permission to go to Orlando with his family for a vacation next month.