Disgraced ex-Lt. gov. Brian Benjamin showed up in court Monday with ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s former defense lawyer — who immediately floated the same theory that helped get de Blasio off the hook in a “pay-to-play” corruption probe.
Barry Berke appeared to telegraph his planned strategy on behalf of Benjamin, who resigned last week following his indictment in an alleged bribery scheme involving more than $50,000 in illegal donations to his campaign committees.
“This is a very unusual political corruption case because the charges are based solely on political contributions and no personal benefits,” Berke said during an appearance in Manhattan federal court.
in 2016, de Blasio was referred for investigation by the state Board of Elections, sparking state and federal probes into fundraising for his 2013 mayoral campaign, his controversial Campaign for One New York nonprofit and the 2014 state Senate elections.
The following year, then-acting Manhattan US Attorney Joon Kim said he’d decided not to file charges against de Blasio in part because of “the particular difficulty in proving criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit.”
Also during Tuesday’s court session, Judge Paul Oetken gave Benjamin permission to travel to New Jersey after Berke said that “he has family there” and prosecutors didn’t object.
The move came amid efforts by Gov. Kathy Hochul and Democratic officials to replace Benjamin as her running mate in the June 28 primary elections by having him disqualify himself by moving out of state.
During an appearance last week on WNYC radio, Hochul said “that is the option, I think … because death is the other one” and joked that host Brian Lehrer should get involved when he suggested she ask Benjamin, a former state senator from Harlem, to temporarily relocate to the Garden State.
“You give him a call, Brian, and you can tell him that’s your thought,” she said.
“I don’t have control over that.”
Benjamin, who is free on a $250,000 bond, was previously granted permission to travel to the federal districts of Northern Georgia and Eastern Virginia.
Benjamin is accused of arranging a $50,000 state grant to developer and lawyer Gerald Migdol’s Friends of Public School Harlem in exchange for Migdol allegedly funneling slightly more than that to Benjamin’s state Senate campaign committee and his failed bid for city comptroller last year.
Migdol was busted in the alleged scheme last year and is reportedly cooperating with the feds against Benjamin.
In a prepared statement, Berke called Benjamin’s five-count indictment “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.”
Berke also said he and co-counsel Dani James decided to take the case “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.”
A spokesperson for Manhattan US Attorney Damian Williams didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Benjamin was represented at his arrangement last week by lawyers James Gatta and William Harrington, who filed paperwork Monday to withdraw from the case because Benjamin had replaced them with Berke and James’ firm.
In 2018, de Blasio acknowledged owing Berke’s firm, Kramer Levin, around $300,000 in unpaid legal fees, which The City website last year said had likely ballooned to $435,000 with interest.
“Obviously, I intend to address that debt and put together the resources over time,” de Blasio said when asked about the matter in October.
Berke declined to say what, if anything, de Blasio had since done to pay his bill and de Blasio’s spokesman didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Berke donated to both of de Blasio’s mayoral races and was his campaign finance committee chairman for the 2013 election.
In 2015, de Blasio appointed Berke as his official representative on Lincoln Center’s board of directors.
Berke was also chief counsel for the House Democrats during former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment.
Additional reporting by Carl Campanile