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- New York senator
NEW YORK — New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin provided incorrect information on a background check he submitted to the governor’s office and state police as part of the vetting process he had to undergo to take on his current role, a Daily News’ review of public records and Benjamin’s own statements show.
According to the background check form, which was signed by Benjamin and dated Aug. 16, the former state senator answered “no” to an inquiry about whether he’d ever been contacted by “a regulatory body concerning any possible legal, regulatory, ethical, or campaign finance, infraction or violation or investigation.”
But Benjamin was contacted by at least two regulatory bodies over two campaign finance issues before the date Benjamin provided on the background check form — one was his use of a Senate campaign committee to pay for expenses related to a wedding celebration, and the other stems from his city comptroller campaign accepting donations that are now being scrutinized by federal prosecutors.
The assertion Benjamin makes on the executive appointment questionnaire of his background check is also contradicted by statements he made to The News on Sept. 9 right after he was sworn in as lieutenant governor.
At the time, Benjamin told The News that a state Board of Elections lawyer first contacted him in early August with questions about how he used a Senate campaign account to pay for “constituent services” at a Harlem jazz club — a payment that came at almost the exact same time he and his wife held a wedding celebration there.
After being sworn in at a ceremony with Gov. Kathy Hochul, Benjamin didn’t provide the exact date he first had contact with the board, but he initially told The News it was in early August that he made the decision to reimburse his campaign out of his own pocket — which came after he was first contacted by the Board of Elections, the state regulatory body overseeing campaign finance.
Benjamin’s spokesman at the time, Jordan Bennett, later said that the newly minted lieutenant governor agreed to make the reimbursement mid-month on Aug. 15, and wrote in a subsequent email to The News that the “initial email” from the Board of Elections came during the week of Aug. 1. During an earlier phone interview, Benjamin told The News he would share that email correspondence, but Bennett did not provide it after The News made a second request in writing.
On Aug. 26, when Hochul first made it official that she’d tap Benjamin as her lieutenant governor, she also explicitly acknowledged that an investigation into the wedding party spending had taken place. Asked about Benjamin’s celebration and his use of campaign funds, Hochul claimed that the matter had been “fully investigated and resolved,” though at the time she wouldn’t say when or by whom.
Despite the Benjamin camp’s inability to provide a precise timeline of events, based on the information they did provide, all of this would have occurred before Aug. 16, the handwritten date provided on the background check Benjamin submitted.
It would also make the answer Benjamin provided false.
Last month, Benjamin conceded in an interview with City & State that he made “mistakes” when it came to his wedding celebration fundraiser and noted that he’d hired the Greenberg Traurig law firm to serve as his compliance team moving forward.
“I was very naive as to the rules and the process,” he said of his Senate fundraising operation. “There was just some sloppy things that happened and some bad decisions. But it was because I didn’t have the right structure in place.”
Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays, who was looped into the Sept. 9 email correspondence between The News and Bennett, would not dispute that Benjamin provided incorrect information on his form, but said Monday that the governor’s office “thoroughly reviewed” Benjamin’s background, “using extensive information in the public domain in addition to information he supplied.”
But there is another earlier — and public — campaign finance controversy that also calls into question the answers Benjamin provided on the form he was required to submit to be sworn in as lieutenant governor.
In January, The City reported that Benjamin received campaign contributions for his city comptroller run from people who had no recollection of giving to him. A day after that story ran, the online outlet reported that the city Campaign Finance Board was in contact with Benjamin’s lawyers about relinquishing the contributions in question.
A Campaign Finance Board spokesman confirmed Monday that Benjamin’s comptroller campaign refunded $13,000 in political contributions — more than $5,000 of which were related to its inquiry into the contributions examined in The City’s story.
One of those contributions was recorded under the name of the 2-year-old grandson of Gerald Migdol, who was indicted last week on federal charges for wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and identity theft in connection with what the feds called “a scheme to misrepresent and conceal the sources of political campaign contributions.”
In the instance of those contributions, Benjamin was contacted by a “regulatory body” about a campaign finance “infraction or violation or investigation” — as stated on the background check form — and that contact clearly occurred before Aug. 16, according to the timeline outlined in The City’s story.
But that isn’t the only potentially problematic part of his background check.
Benjamin also appears to have answered Question S on the form incorrectly as well. The question is: “Have you ever employed a lobbyist, or consultant who is in a firm with lobbyists, in your personal or political positions?” Benjamin answered “No,” but CFB records show that he employed the Parkside Group and Pitta LLP in his run for city comptroller this year. Both are registered lobbyists in New York City.
Benjamin didn’t even bother answering another sensitive inquiry as well — even though the form clearly stipulates that “every question must be answered.”
“Can you say with reasonable certainty that no past or current donor, lobbyist or consultant for such donor, or agent of such donor, will appear before you, directly or indirectly, in the position for which you seek to be appointed?” the question on the background check form reads.
When posed with two fill-in-the-blank boxes — yes or no — Benjamin didn’t fill in either.
Asked Monday why the lieutenant governor submitted incorrect information, his spokesman Neil Reilly maintained that, except for the one question Benjamin “inadvertently missed,” he answered the rest of the questions “honestly.”
Reilly added, though, that the lieutenant governor plans to “re-review” his background check “in the interest of thoroughness and transparency.”
The New York State Police provided The News with documents related to Benjamin’s background check in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. Those documents included the “executive appointment questionnaire” Benjamin filled out.
New York State police spokesman Beau Duffy said Monday that the agency conducts background checks at the request of the governor and that they include “a criminal history check, verification of employment and education, personal information, and a check of personal and professional references.”
But he then noted that some of the answers submitted are solely for the governor’s office to consider, not state police — even though all of the information is ultimately sent to the state police.
“The executive appointment questionnaire is submitted by the candidate to the governor’s office. We utilize the personal, professional and education information submitted by the candidate on that form as the basis for our background investigation,” Duffy added. “The answers submitted to the questions on the rest of the form are reviewed by the governor’s office, and are not part of our investigation.”