Hochul’s chief of staff pays price for disastrous vetting of Benjamin: sources

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s longtime chief of staff played a key role in her disastrous decision to name Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor and apparently missed major red flags, The Post has learned.

Jeff Lewis was in charge of vetting Benjamin, then a state senator from Harlem, before Hochul made him her No. 2 last year, sources said Wednesday.

But the review was “rushed,” one source said, with Lewis failing to uncover the alleged lies that he included in some official forms he filled out – lies that were detailed in a federal bribery indictment unsealed Tuesday.

“Seeing the news yesterday, I was really disheartened because this came to our attention,” one source said.

A source close to Hochul revealed that “there were some flags” raised regarding Benjamin’s vetting forms and “some questions about going back in and making sure they were addressed,” including by having the state police conduct a second background check.

The matter was even discussed in official emails circulated among Hochul’s senior staff but it was dropped a few days later, the source said.

Both Lewis and lawyer Jeffrey Pearlman, a special counsel to the governor, then gave Hochul a green light to choose Benjamin, the source said.

NY State Governor Kathy Hochul signs the “Less is More” bill on September 17, 2021, in her Manhattan, NY office.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s vetting process of former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin was allegedly “rushed” by Chief of Staff Jeff Lewis.
James Messerschmidt

Former Gov. David Paterson, who’s also a former state senator from Harlem, told The Post that he heard unspecified “chatter” about Benjamin around the time he was named lieutenant governor but did not think it would have disqualified him from the job.

Paterson also said Hochul spoke highly of Benjamin during a fundraising event in Manhattan on Monday night.

“That gave me the impression Hochul did not know what was coming down,” he said.

Tuesday’s Manhattan federal court indictment charged Benjamin with five felonies in an alleged scheme to trade a $ 50,000 state grant for around the same amount in illegal campaign contributions.

Former Governor David Paterson attends construction kickoff for National Urban League Empowerment Center in Harlem.
Former Gov. David Paterson believes Gov. Kathy Hochul was unaware of Brian Benjamin’s alleged schemes.
Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Shutterstock

Hochul announced Benjamin’s resignation late Tuesday afternoon and his lawyers said he would fight the allegations in court.

Lewis’ first job was as a summer intern for Hochul in 2009 when she was the Erie County clerk and she hired him to handle her constituent correspondence in Congress in 2012.

He resumed working for her after she was elected lieutenant governor in 2014 and saw his annual salary jump from $ 122,000 to $ 200,000 last year when she succeeded scandal-scarred Gov. Andrew Cuomo following his resignation over a sexual harassment scandal, according to the SeeThroughNY website.

Former Lt.  Gov.  Brian Benjamin
Former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin is accused of funneling a $ 50,000 state grant for campaign contributions.
Stephen Yang

As Hochul’s gubernatorial chief of staff, Lewis held individual meetings with Cuomo’s Executive Chamber aides to determine who would join her administration, The Post reported last year.

Last month, he was transferred to a job as a senior adviser to her campaign and the state Democratic Party, according to his LinkedIn profile.

One source said the move was apparently the result of his hiring decisions. Other sources close to Hochul speculated that his vetting of Benjamin may have also played a role.

At an event Wednesday in Queens, Hochul discussed Benjamin’s appointment and what was known about him.

New York State Governor Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul vows to find a better candidate for her second-in-command.
Robert Mecea

“Those were issues that were not addressed on the forms that he filled out for us, but in terms of our knowledge of them, we had been told that every one of them had been resolved, that there had been restitution paid, in the past and they were something that occurred before, ”she said. “So, those were just a couple of examples in the process, but we are going to do a much better vetting process.”

Pearlman also worked for Hochul in 2015 and 2016, before being named director of the state Authorities Budget Office.

His annual salary as an Executive Chamber employee is $ 204,000, according to SeeThroughNY.

Neither Lewis, Pearlman or Hochul’s office immediately returned requests for comment.

An anonymous source familiar with Lewis ‘thinking defended him and denied that he was moved to the campaign as punishment for bad vetting practices: “That’s too convenient,” the individual said, adding that it was Lewis’ idea to head over to the campaign.

“The campaign is only going to be gearing up more and more.”

“Nothing came up that was not in the public domain,” the source said of Benjamin’s background check, arguing Lewis was unaware of any subpoenas received by Benjamin’s failed comptroller campaign and alleging they may not have come up in the process at all.

The source also admitted the vetting period was “rushed” by the two-week transition period between disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s takeover.

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