NEW YORK (AP) — A lawyer for recently resigned New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin said Monday the Democrat has “very lively” legal issues from which to challenge corruption charges brought against him.
Attorney Barry Berke told a Manhattan federal judge that he expects to challenge on legal grounds the charges brought against Benjamin last week based on the U.S. Supreme Court's skepticism toward criminal cases against politicians built solely on political contributions.
In a written statement issued after the hearing, Berke and defense attorney Dani James said they decided to represent Benjamin “because we are shocked and dismayed that the prosecution would bring such flimsy and unwarranted charges against a sitting Lt. Governor and so close to the primary election.”
“This case is an unprecedented attempt to criminally charge an upstanding state leader for routine fundraising and support of a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools,” they wrote.
Benjamin's arrest on charges alleging he promised to trade his political influence for a real estate developer's campaign contributions created a political crisis for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat.
It came seven months after she teamed up with Benjamin and pledged to restore order after ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Hochul had been lieutenant governor under Cuomo.
Cuomo denies any wrongdoing.
Benjamin is free on $250,000 bail after he pleaded not guilty last Tuesday following his arrest on multiple charges including bribery, fraud, conspiracy and falsification of records. He made his first appearance Monday before Judge J. Paul Oetken, who will preside over a trial if it occurs.
“This is a very unusual case,” Berke told Oetken, citing an instance in which he said the Supreme Court has said prosecutions based solely on political contributions in which the politician receives no personal benefits “face a very high bar” to survive legal challenges and reach convictions.
Prosecutors did not respond to the assertion, and Oetken scheduled a May 12 hearing to decide when to proceed with the filing of pretrial motions and the setting of a trial date.
The indictment against Benjamin claims he used his influence as a state senator to get a $50,000 grant of state funds for a nonprofit organization the developer controlled.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarrod Schaeffer said prosecutors expected to turn over to defense lawyers the bulk of “fairly voluminous” evidence against Benjamin within five weeks, including what resulted from seven search warrants and 160 subpoenas for financial records and other materials.
Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press