Erie County Legislator George A. Holt Jr. pleaded guilty Monday to two misdemeanor violations of New York's tax law, admitting he did not keep accurate records in 2004 and failed to hand over almost $20,000 in sales taxes collected at his Buffalo restaurant.
With interest and penalties, he must repay the state $37,600 and expects to do so before his sentencing March 9.
Ninety minutes before his plea, and just as the County Legislature began its first session of the year, Holt requested a private moment with the 14 other lawmakers to apologize and to insist he will remain in office.
"I must make it clear that there is nothing in this plea that I will enter -- or in the investigation by the district attorney -- that reflects negatively on my performance in the duties of this Legislature," he said, reading from a prepared statement.
"I am sorry if I have offended or let anyone down in their expectations of me," he added. "I always have served sincerely with both heart and mind."
Because the Erie County Charter does not call for the removal of a legislator convicted of a crime, Holt can remain in office, collecting his salary of $42,588 a year. Prosecutors did not insist that he resign as a condition of his plea before State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr.
Holt, 58, has been in the Legislature since 1994 and served as chairman in 2004 and 2005. He said he will seek another two-year term, but he struggled his last time out, winning the crucial Democratic primary largely because the vote had been splintered among seven candidates in his urban Buffalo district.
It is rare for a sitting county legislator to plead guilty to a crime, though others have run into legal trouble.
In one of Erie County's most famous scandals, Legislators Frank C. Ludera and Frederick F. Pordum in 1971 were convicted in a plot to collect bribes to support the county's construction of a domed stadium.
Ludera and Pordum remained in office even after being convicted. They lost their seats only when sentenced to three years in federal prison.
Holt's crime had no connection to his public role, though he said the confusion created by a budget crisis during his service as Legislature chairman distracted him from his oversight of the family's restaurant, Mattie's on Fillmore Avenue.
"Like a lot of small businesses, we have at times found it difficult to keep up with the bookkeeping necessary to insure the accuracy of our sales reporting," he said in his statement, written with the help of his lawyers.
"And during these times, my leadership position has truly become a full-time responsibility, with so much at stake for our community. Of course, I realize that this is not an excuse for failing to keep completely accurate business accounts," he said.
In 2004 and 2005, Holt was an unabashed advocate of the plan to add a penny to Erie County's sales tax formula. Yet for six months in 2004, his business had kept nearly $20,000 of the sales taxes it collected, when the sum should have gone to the state.
The irony might not sit well with some taxpayers.
"When he knew that he was collecting the money and not turning it over, he was depriving the state and county of that revenue. Who knows how to quantify the loss to those entities," said Daniel T. Warren, who took the county to court over adoption of its 2005 budget and who, through the group Upstate Citizens for Equality, has sued to force the state to collect sales taxes on Indian reservations.
When people don't pay taxes, he said, they place a heavier burden on those who do.
"He's made a mistake, and he's been man enough to admit it," said one of Holt's lawyers, H. Todd Bullard. Another Holt lawyer, Mark J. Mahoney, said the record-keeping problems that led to the charges have been corrected.
Prosecutor James Quinn Aurrichio said in court that an investigation showed the business underreported sales tax collections by $19,663.16 from March 1 to Aug. 31, 2004, and knowingly filed false tax reports.
Holt's guilty pleas applied to two counts of filing a fraudulent sales tax report, each punishable by up to three years' probation or a year in jail, though jail time is not expected.
Even before the district attorney got involved, Holt's business had faced a separate claim from the state Department of Taxation and Finance, which files hundreds of such actions around the state each year. The state officials had said Mattie's owed roughly $17,000 in sales taxes dating to 2003 and arranged a plan by which Holt repaid that money.
For the most part, Holt sat quietly Monday while the Legislature started a new year by reinstating its leaders.
"We sometimes fail, no matter how hard we try, reminding us that we are all human and, therefore, imperfect creatures," he told the group before its public session began.
The new Republican minority leader, John J. Mills of Orchard Park, later said it is not up to the other lawmakers to judge Holt.
"I guess it's up to the people of his district to make the decision of whether he should carry on," Mills said.
News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report.