Appeals court reinstates charges against ex-NY Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin

Former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin is again facing felony bribery and fraud charges after a federal appeals court stepped in Friday to reinstate them.

A three-judge panel from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against the Harlem Democrat, finding a judge erred when he dismissed the charges in late 2022.

Benjamin, also a former state senator, is accused of steering a state grant to a real-estate developer’s non-profit organization in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Benjamin’s political campaigns.

But even with Friday’s ruling, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan faces a major obstacle in its case against the former lieutenant governor: The real-estate developer, Gerald Migdol, died last month, leaving prosecutors without a key witness.

Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, declined comment Friday.

In a statement, Benjamin’s attorney, Barry Berke, said the allegations against Benjamin “are false.”

“The facts are clear that Mr. Benjamin did nothing other than engage in routine fundraising and support a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools,” Berke said. “We remain confident that Mr. Benjamin will be vindicated in this case, which never should have been brought.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Benjamin as lieutenant governor in August 2021, shortly after Hochul herself took over the governor’s office. .

Benjamin was arrested in April 2022 and resigned hours later, ending his brief, seven-month tenure. He’s accused of orchestrating a bribery scheme in which he allegedly picked Migdol’s non-profit — Friends of Public School Harlem, a group that distributes backpacks and school supplies to students — for a $50,000 state grant, with Migdol delivering $25,000 in political contributions to Benjamin two weeks later.

Benjamin previously represented Harlem and parts of the Upper West Side in the State Senate.

In December 2022, U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken dismissed the most serious bribery, fraud and conspiracy charges that Benjamin faced, arguing that prosecutors didn’t allege an explicit “quid pro quo” – a legal term used in bribery cases when one thing is exchanged for another.

But the 2nd Circuit panel disagreed, overturning Oetken’s decision and reinstating the charges against Benjamin.

In a 24-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Menashi wrote that federal prosecutors “sufficiently alleged an explicit quid pro quo.”

“While we agree that the quid pro quo must be clear and unambiguous, there is no reason why it cannot be implied from the official’s and the payor’s words and actions,” he wrote.

Friday’s decision is a significant blow to Benjamin, who will now face the full five-count indictment — which also includes falsification of records charges that, in part, accuse him of shielding information about his interactions with Migdol from screening forms he filled out when Hochul was considering him for lieutenant governor.

But the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet revealed how — or if — it plans to proceed following Migdol’s death. Benjamin could also potentially seek to appeal the 2nd Circuit’s decision, which notes different circuit courts have interpreted some of the underlying legal precedent in different ways.

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