Just when you thought New York politics couldn’t possibly get worse, along comes yet another scandal in Albany. Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin surrendered to the FBI over bribery and corruption charges, bringing a quick halt to his executive-branch career after it had barely begun. And having had her running mate arrested by the FBI may make Governor Kathy Hochul’s re-election effort even more difficult:
Lt. Gov. Brian A. Benjamin of New York, the state’s second-in-command to Gov. Kathy Hochul, surrendered early Tuesday morning to face a federal bribery conspiracy indictment in connection with a scheme to funnel fraudulent donations to a previous campaign, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The indictment, the result of an investigation by the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, accused Mr. Benjamin of conspiring to direct state funds to a Harlem real estate investor in exchange for orchestrating thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Mr. Benjamin’s unsuccessful 2021 campaign for New York City comptroller, the people said. The investor was arrested on federal charges in November.
The legal turmoil casts Mr. Benjamin’s political future in question, and complicates this year’s election for him and Ms. Hochul, who was catapulted into office last year after her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, resigned after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.
How does Hochul figure into this scandal? Not directly, at least as of now, but Hochul appointed Benjamin to her old job when she succeeded Cuomo. That decision will likely come back to haunt her when she defends her administration in the midterms:
There is no suggestion that Ms. Hochul was aware of Mr. Benjamin’s alleged criminal conduct, which prosecutors said occurred when he was a state senator. Still, she took office last year promising to end an era of impropriety in Albany, and selecting Mr. Benjamin, 45, was among her first major decisions as governor.
It didn’t take long after that for the corruption to emerge, the Associated Press reports. The first indictment in the case dropped two months after Benjamin took his current office. However, the investigation may have already included Benjamin by the time Hochul appointed him, and Hochul may have known about prosecutor interest in Benjamin at that point:
Federal authorities accused Gerald Migdol of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft in illegally giving donations to Benjamin’s campaign.
Prosecutors had previously not made any accusations against Benjamin, and his campaign said at the time of Migdol’s arrest that it had forfeited any improper donations as soon as they were discovered.
More recently, reports came out saying subpoenas had been issued to Benjamin regarding the financial issues even before Hochul picked him as lieutenant governor.
Despite her saying she didn’t know of the subpoenas at the time, Hochul proclaimed her support for Benjamin, and he said he had told state police as they went though the process of vetting him.
“I have utmost confidence in my lieutenant governor,” Hochul said during a Thursday press conference. “This is an independent investigation related to other people and he’s fully cooperating. He is my running mate.”
How long will that status last? If Benjamin’s still on the ticket by the end of the business day, I’d be stunned. However, there may be a problem with that for Hochul and Democrats, too. Yesterday was the deadline for submitting petitions for their primary, which means they may be stuck with Benjamin on the ballot unless the party can take extraordinary steps to change him out for someone less felonious.
Speaking of which, that turns what should have been good news on the Cuomo front to a potential disaster. Despite spending a couple of million dollars on his “comeback,” Andrew Cuomo didn’t file any petitions to qualify for the primary yesterday. Politico reports that
Monday was the last day for candidates hoping to run in the primary to submit their petitions. None arrived from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The mail delivery to the state Board of Elections confirmed what most observers have long expected: Cuomo will not be making a comeback bid in the June Democratic primary. …
But by not running in the primary, Cuomo is now guaranteed to face additional practical, financial and political hurdles should he eventually get in. The deadline for entering that race could have been seen as put up or shut up time, and for many of his critics, it’s now time to move on.
“I don’t think he should still be taken seriously. I also don’t happen to think he’s going to run,” said Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), the deputy leader of the state Senate. “The state is happy to have moved on from him.”
The sudden specter of corruption around Hochul could change that calculus, though. Cuomo could launch an independent bid for his old job back, which would require him to organize for a May deadline. He’s not going to win as an independent, but he could still wreak his revenge on Democrats for abandoning him while pointing out their own hypocrisies on corruption. It might be enough to put Lee Zeldin into Hochul’s office as the first Republican since George Pataki to win a gubernatorial bid.
It’s about to get veeeeerrrrrryyyyy interesting in the Empire State.