Corruption charges dismissed against ex-New York lieutenant governor; U.S. appeals

FILE PHOTO: Former New York State Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin exits Manhattan federal courthouse in New York

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A U.S. judge on Monday dismissed the main criminal counts in the federal government's corruption case against former New York Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin.

U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan said the Department of Justice failed to allege an explicit "quid pro quo" between Benjamin and Gerald Migdol, a real estate developer in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, to support bribery, honest services wire fraud and conspiracy charges in the indictment.

Oetken said prosecutors can pursue two falsification of records charges against Benjamin, concerning the identities of campaign contributors and a background check to become lieutenant governor.

The office of U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in Manhattan appealed the decision late on Monday to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also in Manhattan.

Benjamin, selected by Governor Kathy Hochul in August 2021 for the state's No. 2 job, resigned as lieutenant governor on April 12 when the charges were announced. He pleaded not guilty.

Barry Berke, a lawyer for Benjamin, said his client was "thankful for his vindication" and looked forward to further serving New York and his Harlem community, after what the lawyer called the "flimsy and unwarranted" charges unfairly cost him his job.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court, which has grown more skeptical of federal prosecutions of public corruption, appeared poised to impose further limits on such prosecutions when it heard arguments in a case involving Joseph Percoco, a former aide to Hochul's predecessor Andrew Cuomo.

Prosecutors said Benjamin directed a $50,000 state grant in June 2019 to a charity Migdol ran in Harlem, where Benjamin was then a state senator, in exchange for contributions to his 2020 re-election campaign and unsuccessful 2021 bid to become New York City comptroller.But Oetken said the government merely "implied" an agreement between the men, and the awarding of the grant was not "proof" there had been one.

Migdol pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges and cooperated with prosecutors.

The case is U.S. v. Benjamin, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 21-cr-00706.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)