Monday, September 25

Brian Benjamin’s arrest exposes a judgment lapse for Gov. Hochul

The latest corruption scandal rocks Albany, and its timing is stunning — placing Gov. Kathy Hochul, with only seven and a half months in office, in a terrible position of her making her that she could have avoided.

Federal charges filed Tuesday against Brian Benjamin of Manhattan, Hochul’s chosen lieutenant governor, describes a classic Albany scheme. As a state senator, Benjamin allegedly pushed for a $50,000 state grant for a nonprofit controlled by a crony who made illegal contributions to Benjamin’s ill-fated Democratic primary campaign for New York City comptroller.

Further, the indictment on bribery, fraud and falsification cites “a series of lies and deceptions to cover up his scheme including by falsifying campaign donor forms, misleading municipal regulators and providing false information in vetting forms Benjamin submitted while under consideration to be appointed the next lieutenant governor” of New York State. He allegedly lied twice to state police vetting him.

At least Benjamin, already on the Democratic primary ticket as Hochul’s endorsed running mate, had the sense to resign while facing the criminal charges. Silent until more than eight hours after the arrest, Hochul said in a statement wanting for her lack of indignation that she accepted, not demanded, Benjamin’s resignation from her.

Only the political calculations were transparent. Now Hochul owes the public a detailed and difficult explanation for why Benjamin was by her side of her even this long.

The smell of a scandal involving Benjamin’s contributions, and other dealings, was evident in news reports in January 2021, eight months before she picked him. The indictment even says Benjamin then pulled back on the $50,000 grant for Friends of Public School Harlem run by investor Gerald Migdol.

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Clearly, serious problems were afoot, but Hochul chose to see or at least speak no evil. Migdol was indicted in November and it should have been clear where this probe was headed. By then she should have reconsidered her endorsement of Benjamin, who runs separately in the primary, or pressed him to come clean on where he stood with the feds.

Instead, she expressed “full confidence” in Benjamin—nice for personal loyalty maybe, but bad for imposing high standards of ethical conduct. Legislative grants and contracts have spawned wrongdoing forever. State officials now need to explore — for real — what procedural reforms were skipped or what new ones need to be in place that could have nipped this in the bud.

Under New York’s convoluted election laws, it is too late to get Benjamin off the ticket barring some legal contortions. Could Hochul find a way to support Diana Reyna, ticket-mate of gubernatorial primary rival Tom Suozzi? Or would that simply boost Suozzi against herself?

That’s a problem for Hochul and her party to worry about. The public’s concern has to be whether Hochul can reconcile this debacle and show better judgment and leadership going forward.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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