An Albany County grand jury indicted two state senators Wednesday – one sitting and one retired – on felony election law violations, as part of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s probe of election law fraud in Niagara County.
State Sen. Robert G. Ortt and former Sen. George D. Maziarz, both with deep roots as North Tonawanda Republicans, are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday morning in Albany.
A spokeswoman for Ortt acknowledged late Wednesday that the senator faces three counts of offering a false instrument for filing. Just hours earlier, he voluntarily appeared before the grand jury probing the campaign finances of Maziarz and the Niagara County Republican Committee.
The senator will not resign and will fight the charges, according to Andrea Bozek, Ortt's spokeswoman.
Ortt issued a statement Wednesday evening, saying: “We look forward to telling voters the truth about Eric Schneiderman and exposing him for the power hungry, political opportunist he is and I will fight this ridiculous charge.”
Former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor election law violation, as well.
His attorney, Patrick J. Brown, said Wojtaszek appeared in Albany City Court Wednesday morning to acknowledge the unclassified misdemeanor of failing to file a reporting form during the 2012-2013 period that has come under Schneiderman’s scrutiny for the past two years.
“He was not fingerprinted or a mug shot taken,” Brown said, adding he expected Wojtaszek will pay a fine.
Wojtaszek is the husband of Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek, who has recused herself from the case. It is not known if the charges will affect Henry Wojtaszek's law license or his post as president of Western Regional Off-Track Betting.
The attorney general's office would not comment.
The charges followed six days after at least five associates and contractors of Maziarz’s one-time powerful Niagara County political machine testified before Schneiderman’s grand jury. The body is probing allegations that money was improperly laundered through campaign contractors to subcontractors in payments that were not properly reported.
Ortt -- who received the Bronze Star as an Army lieutenant in Afghanistan and who attended Wednesday’s Senate session in the Capitol -- has hired Bozek’s Mercury public relations firm and noted Albany criminal attorney Stephen R. Coffey to fight the charges. He is already pounding Schneiderman, a former Democratic state senator from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Ortt claimed the attorney general is mounting a political attack at a time when a fragile GOP-dominated majority controls the Senate.
“As someone who fought and sacrificed for our country, I am sickened that a career politician and hyper-partisan like Eric Schneiderman can concoct baseless charges to serve his own political agenda,” Ortt said, in his statement.
“One thing is clear: the only reason I am included in this is to make their case politically appealing," he added. “As multiple news organizations have documented, Eric Schneiderman has been obsessed with using his political office to persecute his political enemies and protect his political allies."
Details on Maziarz’s charges are slated to be revealed in Thursday’s court action. His attorney, Joseph M. LaTona, did not return a call seeking comment late Wednesday.
Ortt, a former mayor in North Tonawanda, was elected to the Senate in 2014 following Maziarz's surprise decision earlier in the year to not seek re-election after 19 years in Albany.
Soon after his announcement, it was revealed that federal prosecutors were seeking the whereabouts of $151,000 in missing campaign funds. That separate case is now in the hands of Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr.
Facing almost certain indictment by Schneiderman’s grand jury, Ortt launched what some legal observers labeled a “Hail Mary” defense early Wednesday, when he voluntarily offered to waive immunity and appear before the grand jury. Though other Niagara County figures were automatically granted immunity for their testimony, Ortt attempted to convince the panel of his innocence by the risky appearance, according to two veteran legal observers.
That bid apparently failed when the indictment was returned on Wednesday.
It is believed the charges stem from an agreement between Meghan Ortt, the senator’s wife, and Synor Marketing and Regency Communications, according to a source close to Ortt. She was under retainer as a graphic designer with the firms. The source contends payments were made directly to Meghan Ortt, and that the couple followed all disclosure requirements and paid all appropriate taxes on her retainer.
Meghan Ortt was among those who testified before the grand jury one week ago.
The probe centers around Maziarz, the longtime king of Niagara County politics, as well as his campaign committee, according to the sources. Schneiderman is also concentrating on the Niagara County Republican Committee, at one time dominated by Maziarz and his associates.
Those appearing before the grand jury on March 9 -- in addition to Meghan Ortt -- included, according to the sources and attorneys involved:
• Former County Legislator Glenn S. Aronow. Investigators are attempting to determine if he received payments as a subcontractor.
• Timothy P. Synor, whose Synor Marketing Co. played a significant role in producing campaign materials for the 2012 election now under scrutiny.
• Jack Cookfair, a Syracuse political consultant with Western New York roots who also was involved in the 2012 campaign.
• Michael J. Norris of Lockport, a former Niagara County Republican chairman who was elected to the Assembly in November.
Brown, Wojtaszek’s attorney, acknowledged his client had maintained that he could not be responsible for campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections because he no longer served as GOP chairman, was not the campaign committee’s treasurer, and did not file the reports. Other legal observers said he could be viewed as an “agent” of campaign officials in the eyes of prosecutors, and Brown agreed.
“There is a section that imposes filing requirements on candidates or an agent of the committee,” he said. “In fairness, because Henry was still active at that time, he arguably could be an agent.
“He did not realize a filing had to be made, but he now realizes it should have been,” Brown added. “He has stepped up to the plate.”
Brown sidestepped questions on whether part of Wojtaszek’s plea deal includes testifying for the prosecution in any trial.
“He has been cooperative throughout and our expectation is that he will continue to be cooperative,” he said.