Lawyers for former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin asked a judge to toss his bribery case on Wednesday, arguing federal prosecutors have failed to clearly show there was an “explicit quid pro quo” between the disgraced lawmaker and a campaign donor.
In a Manhattan federal court hearing, defense attorney Barry Berke repeatedly accused prosecutors of improperly charging Benjamin in what he called the “most aggressive political corruption case ever made by the US government.”
Benjamin — who resigned from his post as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s No. 2 after his indictment in April — faces bribery conspiracy charges tied to an alleged campaign finance scheme that dates back to his days as a state senator.
He’s accused of accepting contributions for his state senate and city comptroller campaigns from Harlem real estate developer Gerald Migdol in exchange for steering state funds to the donor’s non-profit.
Berke argued to Judge Paul Oetken that because the allegations deal with contributions, prosecutors have to prove an agreement was “expressly” stated and that there was an explicit quid pro quo.
“Simply asking for money before or after a benefit, that cannot be enough,” he said.
If that standard was applied across US politics, Berke continued, it would have a “chilling effect” on lawmakers nationwide who have sought to aid a given industry through legislation.
When pressed by Oetken that the indictment does allege the Benjamin accepted contributions “in exchange for” the state funds, Berke said prosecutors were trying to”satisfy elements of the statute,” but failed to show a law had been broken.
Assistant US Attorney Jarrod Schaeffer argued that the charges are “firmly grounded in the law” and they are a “straight forward and reasonable application” of the bribery statute.
He added that prosecutors do believe there was a clear quid pro quo between the pair in which the lawmaker aided Migdol’s non-profit in exchange for campaign cash.
The charges, Schaeffer said, differentiate between above-board donations Benjamin received from Migdol and those accepted as part of the quid pro quo.
Benjamin and people in his orbit, he added, made “efforts to obscure the origin of those campaign contributions” — but admitted they could have done so because they were illegally bundled donations.
Judge Oetken said he would issue a decision on whether or not to toss the case at a later date.
Berke represented former Mayor Bill de Blasio when he faced scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors related to his fundraising for his 2013 mayoral bid and his Campaign for One New York nonprofit.
De Blasio was not charged, in part because, similar to in Benjamin’s case, there was no allegation that he received personal benefits through his fundraising efforts.
Benjamin has pleaded not guilty.