By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Part of the promise that surrounded Christine Quinn's election last year as City Council Speaker was the hope that the former activist would bring the best and brightest into government with her. That optimism endured even after she quickly purged 61 longtime council staffersincluding several who were considered standouts. The upbeat explanation was that the new leader was just clearing the decks for her own team, rather than making way for the patronage picks of the political insiders who had endorsed her.
But that fails to explain the resistible rise of one Michael D. Benjamin, a disbarred former attorney whose résumé was quickly and successfully floated to Quinn by a political ally after the mass firing opened up scores of vacancies on her staff.
Benjamin, 55, lost his license to practice law back in 1994 when an appellate court upheld 15 charges against him of professional neglect. His disbarment, however, hasn't noticeably harmed his political career. He has spent 30 years in one decently paying patronage post or another. Much of that good fortune stems from his roots: Benjamin is a veteran officer, and petition-carrying foot soldier, of Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, the powerful Canarsie-based organization that has spawned a string of the borough's leaders and judges. While the clout held by most old-time political clubs has ebbed, the Jeff Club has endured and remains Brooklyn's single greatest locus of power. That influence stems in part from its ability to reward loyal troops such as Benjamin.
When Quinn sought the speakership, the support of Brooklyn's Democratic Party organ- ization was key to her victory, and one of the Jeff Club's favorite sons, city councilman Lewis Fidler, became a crucial ally after he jettisoned his own hopes of capturing the job.
At the time the new hiring opportunities arose, Benjamin was earning $36,000 a year as an aide to Fidler, handling council legislation. It was one of two political jobs he held simultaneously: The party loyalist also collects $25,000 a year as a part-time assistant to State Senator John Sampson, a South Brooklyn politician who has also received clubhouse support. Benjamin's duties in that job are to attend one or two community events each week as Sampson's representative.
Benjamin's political appointments began right after his 1977 graduation from law school when he went to work as an assistant counsel for another Jeff Club stalwart, former State Assembly speaker Stanley Fink. When Fink passed his assembly seat to his aide, Anthony Genovesi, in 1986, Benjamin remained on staff as a $50,000-a-year lawyer. Benjamin still managed to hang on after Genovesi's death in 1998, lasting on the payroll until 2003 when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver tired of his services. "All his rabbis were dead," explains a Benjamin ally, referring to his political benefactors.
Fidler says he didn't remember whether he had approached Quinn directly, or spoke to her chief of staff about hiring Benjamin for a job on the council's central staff. But the answer was the same. "They said, 'Send the résumé in.' " He did, and his friend Benjamin was soon made a legislative policy analyst at a new salary of $60,000.
"Was it a favor to me? OK, maybe it's a favor to me," Fidler tells the Voice. "But is he qualified? He is well qualified."
Fidler cites Benjamin's role as a director of a civic organization in Bergen Beach, and as vice chairman of a local school-advisory panel. "This is a guy who's active in his community," says Fidler. Still, the councilman acknowledges that he didn't immediately tell Quinn that his aide came with some baggage. The disciplinary panel that won Benjamin's disbarment charged that he had failed to follow through on numerous matters for his clients. In one instance, Benjamin failed to file the required paper-work after an 85-year-old man gave the lawyer a $1,000 retainer to handle his divorce. A woman gave him $1,500 to fight a child-custody case but Benjamin never followed through. He was supposed to help a 12-year-old boy win a personal-injury claim but he never got the papers in on time.
Fidler says that he had read the appellate court decision on Benjamin's disbarment and decided that it "didn't involve any dishonesty. This stuff was all in the 1980s and early '90s. It's 13 years ago. We forgive criminals faster than that."
Fidler says Quinn learned soon enough about the old problem and wasn't put off by it. "I didn't have to tell her," Fidler says. "He did. At the interview he disclosed that he was disbarred, as he should have."
Fidler says he has often urged Benjamin to apply to have his law license reinstated, but that he has failed to do so. "My one criticism is that he's dragged his ass on that. But he did nothing venal and I said I'd write a letter for him when he reapplied."
In his council job, Benjamin helps to study proposed legislation for several council panels, including the Youth Services Committee, which is headed by Fidler. "He doesn't perform any legal work for the council," Fidler says. Actually, the 1994 court order forbids Benjamin from even providing an opinion about the law "or any advice in relation thereto." And documents show that Benjamin has written resolutions for Fidler's committee, as well as memos offering legal interpretations to staff attorney Laura Popa, which would appear to violate the order.