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Corruption case against former New York lieutenant governor is revived

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

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday revived corruption charges against former New York Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, who prosecutors accused of funneling a $50,000 state grant to a now-deceased developer in exchange for campaign contributions.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said prosecutors "sufficiently alleged an explicit quid pro quo" between Benjamin and Gerald Migdol to support bribery, honest services wire fraud and conspiracy charges in the indictment.

Friday's unanimous decision by a three-judge panel reversed a December 2022 ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan, and returned the case to him.

Two charges accusing Benjamin of falsifying records had been put on hold pending the U.S. Department of Justice appeal.

Benjamin's prosecution faces some uncertainty because Migdol, who had pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges and could have been a key government witness, died on Feb. 9.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court last May narrowed the ability of prosecutors to pursue some corruption cases.

Migdol had been a real estate developer in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, where Benjamin was once a state senator.

Prosecutors acknowledged last month that Migdol's death would affect a trial for Benjamin, but that they had no plans "to abandon any allegation in the indictment."

Barry Berke, a lawyer for Benjamin, said in a statement: "Mr. Benjamin did nothing other than engage in routine fundraising and support a non-profit providing needed resources to Harlem public schools. We remain confident that Mr. Benjamin will be vindicated."

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in Manhattan declined to comment.

Prosecutors said Benjamin directed the $50,000 grant in June 2019 to a charity Migdol ran in Harlem, in exchange for contributions to his 2020 re-election campaign and unsuccessful 2021 bid to become New York City comptroller.

Oetken said the government merely "implied" an agreement between the men, and the grant was not proof of one.

But in Friday's decision, Circuit Judge Steven Menashi called the absence of an express agreement "immaterial because the existence of the agreement, and the clarity of its terms to Migdol and Benjamin, could be inferred from their words and actions."

Menashi added that while campaign contributions raise free speech issues under the U.S. Constitution, "it is the corrupt agreement that transforms the exchange from a First Amendment protected campaign contribution into an unprotected crime."

Benjamin resigned as lieutenant governor in April 2022 when the charges were announced, eight months after Governor Kathy Hochul tapped him for the state's No. 2 job.

The case is U.S. v. Benjamin, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-3091.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)