Then-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin leaves Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.

Then-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin leaves Manhattan federal court on Tuesday. Credit: Louis Lanzano

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said the resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin after he was arrested on corruption charges is personally disappointing and blamed her decision to appoint him last year on a faulty backgrounding process.

“He filled out the background-check forms,” Hochul told WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “We were told that everything that had risen up had been addressed."

Benjamin was arrested Tuesday on charges of bribery, fraud and falsifying records in connection with an alleged scheme centered around illegal campaign donations when he was a state senator, before Hochul appointed him in September.

At the time, there was a federal investigation into what the U.S. attorney called a scheme to trade a $50,000 state grant to a charity to land campaign contributions for Benjamin's race for New York City comptroller. Although the investigations weren’t made public, there were media reports at the time that raised questions about Benjamin’s campaign spending.

But Hochul said she believed Benjamin was “clean” based on a state police background check and the form Benjamin filled out said he wasn’t under investigation.

A state police spokesman declined comment.

“It was a surprise, it truly was, but it was clear to both of us that he could no longer serve as lieutenant governor,” Hochul said. “I want New Yorkers to have complete confidence in their government.”

That commitment has been part of Hochul’s campaign this year for a full term, but it may be a harder sell now, said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College and longtime Albany political commentator.

“I found it unusual that in her first major decision in her governorship that she blew it, and their staff blew it,” Muzzio said. “They didn’t do due diligence … There were rumors and there were allegations (about Benjamin) … she is going to claim, ‘He lied to me,’ but that’s not enough.”

Benjamin’s resignation follows that of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned in August amid sexual harassment allegations. Hochul, his lieutenant governor for seven years, then rose to the office.

Hochul said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, under the state constitution, is assuming the duties of lieutenant governor. It is the first time the top two positions in New York State have been held by women at the same time.

Hochul said her staff is still researching whether Benjamin can be removed from the ballot in the June primary.

Hochul said she’s also begun the process of deciding whether to appoint another lieutenant governor.

One of Democratic rivals in the June primary, Rep. Tom Suozzi, said, “The governor is showing a complete lack of judgment." He said “a simple Google search” would have revealed ongoing news stories raising questions about Benjamin’s campaign contributions and use of state grants.

Suozzi in a news conference suggested that Hochul appoint his running mate, Diana Reyna, as lieutenant governor now.

Hochul was asked about that scenario.

“I have not even heard that rumor,” Hochul said. “This is very early in the process … there have absolutely been no decision made.”

With Yancey Roy

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