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Hochul grapples with aftermath after her lieutenant governor resigns over corruption charges

 NY Gov Kathy Hochul speaks at the auto show in New York City on April 13, 2022
Don Pollard, Office of Gov Hochul
NY Gov Kathy Hochul speaks at the auto show in New York City on April 13, 2022

A day after her lieutenant governor’s arrest and resignation, Gov. Kathy Hochul is trying to manage the fallout.

Brian Benjamin was charged Tuesday with engineering a bribery and corruption scheme involving campaign contributions.

On Wednesday, Hochul launched into an energetic schedule, attending an early morning ceremony at the first in-person auto show at the Javits Center in Manhattan after two years of pandemic-related postponements.

“When the auto show is back; that is the clearest sign that New York is back,” Hochul told the audience.

She also attended an anti-hate crime rally and spoke to union supporters.

She addressed the scandal in an appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” It had been scheduled before Benjamin’s indictment by federal prosecutors for an alleged bribery scheme involving phony campaign donations to gain access to a public matching fund for candidates. He’s also accused of trying to cover up the illegal activities.

Hochul said she was caught off guard by Benjamin’s arrest, and she’s disappointed in him.

“It was a surprise, it truly was,” Hochul said. “But it was clear to both of us that he could not continue to serve as lieutenant governor.”

Benjamin admitted on April 7 that when Hochul was considering appointing him as lieutenant governor last August, he failed to tell her that he had been subpoenaed by investigators. He also did not tell the State Police, who were conducting a background check, about the probes by the U.S. Attorney and the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Hochul said had she known, she would not have chosen Benjamin.

But before Hochul selected him, there already were reports of his questionable behavior.

When Benjamin was a state senator, he reimbursed his campaign fund for improperly using it to pay for car loan payments, gasoline, and a party related to his wedding.

And a January 2021 news story in the publication The City hinted at some problems in Benjamin’s unsuccessful campaign for New York City comptroller. It reported that three men who were listed at the Board of Elections as making small donations to Benjamin said they had not contributed.

Hochul said she thought all of those issues had been cleared up by the time she selected him for the post.

“We had been told that everything that had risen up had been addressed,” Hochul said. “Everything was clean.”

Hochul said she’s going to take some time to choose a new lieutenant governor and will conduct a much more thorough vetting process.

There are two other candidates on the ballot for lieutenant governor in the June primary. Diana Reyna is teamed up with Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who is campaigning against Hochul for governor. Ana Maria Archila is associated with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who also wants to be governor.

There’s been speculation that Hochul could appoint either woman as her lieutenant governor, or convince them to become her running mate instead.

Lieutenant governor candidates run separately from gubernatorial candidates on the primary ballot, but together in the November election, so it’s also possible that one of them could end up on the general election ticket with Hochul even if she does not choose them.

In a news conference Wednesday, Reyna was critical of what she said was Hochul’s “failed” vetting process of Benjamin.

“This speaks volumes of the governor’s judgment,” she said.

Reyna, asked whether she would run with Hochul in the primary, said the question is “hypothetical.” But she said she intends to stick with her endorsement of Suozzi for governor.

She did not rule out accepting an offer to be appointed as lieutenant governor, and said she would work with whoever is governor if she were to win the number two spot.

Another problem for Hochul is that it’s too late to remove Benjamin from the June ballot unless he dies, runs for another office or leaves the state.

Under the terms of his bail agreement, Benjamin’s travel is restricted, but he is allowed to visit Virginia and Georgia, where he has family.

Hochul said she is “examining” ways to get Benjamin off the ballot, and said trying to convince him to move is an “option.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.