Additional reporting by KAREN JUANITA CARRILLO, Amsterdam News Staff
Statement from Brian Benjamin’s legal team:
From the very beginning, we said we are shocked and dismayed that the prosecution would bring such flimsy and unwarranted charges based on nothing more than routine fundraising and support of a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools. Today’s decision shows how these wrongful charges so harmed Mr. Benjamin and unfairly cost him his position as Lt. Governor. The dismissal of this now discredited bribery theory also makes clear how the indictment was a direct assault on the democratic process. Mr. Benjamin is thankful for his vindication and looks forward to new opportunities to serve the people of New York and his Harlem community. While today is a great day for justice, democracy and the rule of law, it is tragic that this case was ever brought and such a decision was necessary. – Barry Berke and Dani James of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP
NEW YORK (AP)—A federal judge tossed out bribery and fraud charges against former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin on Monday, Dec. 5, leaving Benjamin to face only records falsification charges and prompting his lawyers to say it was tragic that the case was ever brought.
Judge J. Paul Oetken said in a written opinion that prosecutors failed to allege an explicit example in which Benjamin provided a favor for a bribe—an essential element of bribery and honest services fraud charges.
Benjamin, a Democrat, resigned after his arrest last April. He pleaded not guilty to charges that he obtained campaign contributions from a real estate developer in exchange for his influence to get a $50,000 grant of state funds for a nonprofit organization the developer controlled.
Benjamin’s arrest had created a political crisis for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who chose him to serve as second-in-command when she became governor after a sexual harassment scandal that drove her predecessor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, from office.
At the time of his arrest, Benjamin’s lawyers had issued a statement saying they planned to show the courts that their client’s actions were laudable rather than a crime. On Monday, attorneys Barry Berke and Dani James said in a statement that the ruling “shows how these wrongful charges so harmed Mr. Benjamin and unfairly cost him his position as Lt. Governor.”
“While today is a great day for justice, democracy and the rule of law, it is tragic that this case was ever brought and such a decision was necessary,” they said. “From the very beginning, we said we are shocked and dismayed that the prosecution would bring such flimsy and unwarranted charges based on nothing more than routine fundraising and support of a nonprofit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools.”
They wrote that Benjamin was “thankful for his vindication and looks forward to new opportunities to serve the people of New York and his Harlem community.”
NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes told the AmNews she never believed the charges against Benjamin were valid. “I always believed that those charges were false. And I believe that the rest of that case will prove that he was and is a young man of integrity,” she said. Dukes charged that media coverage of the reported bribe didn’t make much sense. News articles she read seemed to point to someone wanting to save themselves from being indicted by blaming everything on Benjamin. “Brian has served his community well: he’s served on the community board, he is a community person, so the community has been very, very upset from the day it happened.”
“It’s horrific, it’s unfair, it’s unconscionable,” commented New York County Democrat Leader Keith Wright about the charges brought against Benjamin. “And I predict he will eventually be vindicated. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that his family has gone through.”
With the bribery and fraud charges dismissed, Wright said it makes it less likely the records falsification charges can be proven.
When the charges against Benjamin were announced and he was arrested by federal authorities, it was all done with great fanfare. Benjamin was only able to serve as lieutenant governor of New York from September 2021 until April 12, 2022, when he resigned in apparent disgrace.
“The major charges, the major crime he was accused of, [have] been dropped and that’s what often happens in the legal system: it overcharges,” the Rev. Conrad Tillard explained to the AmNews. “My question is, had they done a better investigation of this, would he have been hounded out of office?”
It’s not unusual for Black politicians to have corruption charges against them widely proclaimed, Tillard noted, and then later either dismissed or for the person accused to be charged with a lesser, minor offense. Black elected officials have raised issues about this type of persecution before Congress, but it’s still widely seen.
“I think it’s very important that the community shares this news as widely as the news of his arrest and his slander,” Tillard added. “You know, Brian Benjamin is a person of extraordinary capabilities—who knows where his career might have gone had this not happened. … It’s entirely possible that we may see the reemerging of Brian Benjamin, but we have to start with letting folks know that the major charges that he was facing have been dropped––and his community deserves to know that.”
A spokesperson for prosecutors declined comment.
Benjamin was the state’s second Black lieutenant governor. During a state Legislature career that began in May 2017, he emphasized criminal justice reform and affordable housing. His district included most of central Harlem, where he was born and raised by Caribbean immigrant parents.
In tossing out the first three charges of a five-count indictment, the judge wrote that appeals courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have made clear that proof of a promise was necessary to support criminal charges when payments are made in the form of campaign contributions.
The judge said he also agreed with a separate defense argument that the facts alleged in the indictment, even if true, fail to establish criminal liability. He noted that the government’s timeline of events shows that there was no agreement between Benjamin and the developer at the time Benjamin procured the $50,000 in state funding.
The charges that were left intact allege that Benjamin knowingly made a false entry in a record with the intent to impede an investigation.