MANHATTAN (CN) — The federal indictment of former New York Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin failed to explicitly lay out evidence of quid pro quo bribery, a federal judge ruled Monday, dismissing the bulk of criminal counts against the state politician.
“The Court concludes that, for criminal liability for bribery in the context of campaign contributions, there must be a quid pro quo that is clear and unambiguous, meaning that (1) the link between the official act and the payment or benefit — the pro — must be shown by something more than mere implication,” U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken wrote in a ruling made public Monday morning. “And (2) there must be a contemporaneous mutual understanding that a specific quid and a specific quo are conditioned upon each other.
“This requirement is essential to the validity of the grand jury process,” the Obama-appointed judge added.
Federal prosecutors lobbed accusations of corruption at Benjamin, then-second-in-command to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, when he was indicted in April on counts of bribery and fraud in connection to an alleged campaign finance scheme.
The indictment accused Benjamin of taking quid pro quote bribes from Harlem real estate developer Gerald Migodol, who steered campaign contributions toward Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller in exchange for funneling $50,000 in state funds to Migdol’s nonprofit organization in Harlem.
Benjamin had taken office six months earlier 2021, becoming only the second Black lieutenant governor in New York history. He resigned from the Albany post the same day the charges were announced. Next week, he turns 46.
At oral arguments in August, Benjamin’s attorney, Barry Berke told Judge Oetken that the bribery counts were unwarranted and would have “chilling effect” on routine political fundraising unless the court granted the motion to dismiss.
Berke, who served as chief impeachment counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives in the Senate's first impeachment trial of the former President Donald Trump, celebrated Monday’s ruling as vindicating and “necessary.”
“Today’s decision shows how these wrongful charges so harmed Mr. Benjamin and unfairly cost him his position as Lt. Governor,” he said in a joint statement with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel co-counsel Dani James. “The dismissal of this now discredited bribery theory also makes clear how the indictment was a direct assault on the democratic process.”
Benjamin was set to be Hochul’s running mate when she campaigns for her first proper four-year term in the 2022 state gubernatorial election. A week prior to his indictment and resignation, she stated she had the “utmost confidence” in Benjamin.
Following Benjamin's resignation, New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins became acting lieutenant governor for the second time. Governor Hochul later appointed Antonio Delgado to fill the vacancy. The pair won the state’s 2022 midterm election after sweeping the Democratic primaries.
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.
Benjamin pleaded not guilty to the federal indictment in April was released on a $250,000 personal recognizance bond.
Judge Oetken, who previously set a trial date for Jan. 23, 2023, denied the motion to dismiss counts of falsification of records, which allege Benjamin and others acting at his direction or on his behalf also engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme that stretched from 2019 to 2021.
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