Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, September 20, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds push for ex-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin to face full indictment

The Second Circuit must consider whether more than half of the charges against the former New York official were dismissed improperly.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Prosecutors urged a federal appeals panel on Tuesday to breathe new life into charges that the former lieutenant governor of New York took bribes in the form of campaign contributions.

U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken had thrown out three counts for bribery and honest services wire fraud in December 2022, finding that the original five-count indictment against Brian Benjamin failed to explicitly lay out the evidence of quid pro quo bribery.

When he was charged in the Southern District of New York last year, Benjamin had served for just six months as second-in-command to New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

The indictment accused Benjamin, now 46, of taking quid pro quote bribes from Harlem real estate developer Gerald Migdol, whose nonprofit organization in Harlem received $50,000 in state funds after Migdol steered campaign contributions toward Benjamin’s failed 2021 bid for New York City comptroller.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten urged the Second Circuit on Tuesday to revive the original bribery counts against Benjamin before the case proceeds to a jury.

“Allowing politicians to demand bribes so long as they avoid stating a demand in so many words runs afoul of common sense and basic principles of criminal law, both of which recognize that criminal agreements are almost always formed — and proven — through inferences," prosecutors wrote in a brief to the appeals court.

Benjamin’s lawyer Barry Berke insisted meanwhile that Oetken was correct in throwing out the charges.

“It needs to be a clear and unambiguous agreement, and there is no agreement alleged here,” argued Berke, an attorney with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

“This case presents the question whether the district court ... correctly held that an indictment purporting to allege an implicit quid pro quo did not sufficiently plead an explicit quid pro quo, requiring dismissal of the bribery counts,” Benjamin’s counsel wrote in an appeals brief.

U.S. Circuit Judge Steven J. Menashi queried both sides on Tuesday with hypothetical scenarios that separately proposed either explicit or more vague exchanges of campaign contributions for “high quality publication education.”

The Trump appointee also asked about the possibility bribes by “temporal proximity,” a closeness in timing tying the pro to the quo, in the absence of clearly expressed transactional agreement.

On rebuttal Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scotten pledged his confidence in the Department of Justice’s case against Benjamin if it were to go to trial in the district court. “We’re supposed to prove it. We will prove it,” he said.

Judge Menashi was joined on the three-judge panel who heard arguments Tuesday by U.S. Circuit Judges Dennis Jacobs, a George H. W. Bush appointee, and Amalya L. Kearse, a Carter appointee. 

The Second Circuit panel did not immediately rule on the appeal at the conclusion of the 43-minute oral arguments hearing on Tuesday.

Benjamin, the Harlem-born son of Caribbean immigrants, is the second Black lieutenant governor in New York state's history. The first was David Paterson, also a former state senator from Harlem, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2006 and took over as governor in 2007 when Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal.

Paterson had his own corruption scandal during his last year in office, ultimately causing him to withdraw his bid for a full term as governor of New York.

Though Paterson never faced criminal charges, the Commission on Public Integrity would later find that Paterson had lied about accepting five free tickets to the World Series and fined him $62,125.

The scandal over the tickets broke in March 2010, about a month after Paterson was implicated in witness-tampering allegations after he reached out to a woman who had accused one his staffers of domestic abuse.

Follow @jruss_jruss
Categories / Appeals, Government, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.