The procession of top Niagara County Republicans into an Albany courtroom continued Thursday afternoon as former state Sen. George D. Maziarz pleaded not guilty to three felony violations of election law.
Maziarz, who followed the morning appearance and not guilty plea of Sen. Robert G. Ortt in a related case, offered no comment after his appearance in Albany County Court. He is charged with five counts of filing a false instrument, and was released in his own recognizance by Judge Peter A. Lynch.
He left the court with attorneys Joseph M. LaTona of Buffalo and E. Stewart Jones of Troy, considered one of the Capital District’s top defense lawyers.
“All I have to say here is Maziarz is not guilty, he pleads not guilty, and he looks forward to being vindicated in the courts,” LaTona told waiting reporters.
The pair of North Tonawanda Republicans faced arraignment one day after a grand jury indicted them as part of state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s prolonged probe of campaign finances in Niagara County. If convicted, both could face a maximum sentence of one and one-third to four years on each count.
In court papers filed Thursday, Schneiderman alleges that Maziarz orchestrated a “multi-layered pass-through scheme” that enabled him to use money from his own Committee to Elect Maziarz State Senate, and also from the Niagara County Republican Committee. He is charged with funneling secret campaign payments to a former Senate staffer who had left government service amid charges of sexual harassment.
According to court filings, the two committees paid the former government staff member $49,000 in 2012 and $46,000 in 2013-14. To conceal these payments — and to avoid public scrutiny of his decision to retain the former staffer for campaign-related work — the state contends Maziarz and others falsely reported the expenditures on five separate filings with the New York State Board of Elections.
They were disguised as payments to pass-through entities, rather than to the staff member, in clear violation of New York State law, the AG's papers say.
In court earlier Thursday, Ortt appeared in a dark suit and accompanied by Albany defense attorney Stephen R. Coffey. He answered to three counts of first degree offering a false instrument for filing. He reiterated that he will not resign, and that he would fight the charges he says are motivated by Schneiderman’s Democratic politics.
“I just want to say as someone who has fought in combat for his country, who has served his city as the mayor and who has served his state as a New York state senator, I am saddened and sickened by the ridiculous and baseless charges that have been put against me by AG Eric Schneiderman,” Ortt told the court. “I have no doubt the only reason I am involved in this case, I was a part of this investigation, is to make it more politically appealing and further Eric Schneiderman’s partisan agenda, which has been well documented.
“The constituents, my constituents in the 62nd District, know me, they know what kind of person I am and they know what kind of public servant I have been,” he added. “I am guilty of nothing. I will fight these charges and I believe I will prevail.”
He also said he will tell “New Yorkers the truth about Eric Schneiderman and myself.”
Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., a Long Island Republican, later expressed his confidence and faith in Ortt.
But within an hour of Ortt’s court appearance, Senate Democrats were calling for long-stalled changes to state ethics and campaign finance laws. Prior to Wednesday’s indictments, there had been growing indications that any ethics-related matters would be jettisoned from state budget talks and held for end-of-session talks in June. That quickly changed.
“Once again it highlights the need for real ethics reforms, something the Senate Democrats have been calling on for years and really shows the absurdity that there has been no talk in this budget process of cleaning up Albany and passing these strong ethics reforms," Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the mainline Senate Democratic conference, said after Ortt’s arraignment.
Schneiderman, meanwhile, weighed in on the case for the first time on Thursday, hinting his efforts will revolve around “no-show jobs and secret payments” that he called “the lifeblood of public corruption.”
“New Yorkers deserve full and honest disclosures by their elected officials — not the graft and shadowy payments uncovered by our investigation,” he said. “These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust – and we will hold those responsible to account.”
Federal law enforcement, which sources say was heavily involved in the case's detective work, also weighed in.
"As we have seen too often in Western New York, this case presents another instance when public officials served their own interests instead of those to whom they were positioned to serve," said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI's Buffalo office. "The defendants are alleged to have chosen greed over good and their behavior compromised the integrity of government. It is the expectation of the public that government officials are not in their positions to self-deal.”
The court filings and the indictment allege that while mayor of North Tonawanda, Ortt participated in an illegal scheme to pad his taxpayer-funded salary. Court papers allege that in order to make up for a $5,000 reduction in annual salary that Ortt would be paid as mayor (he previously served as city clerk and treasurer), he and others devised a pass-through scheme to pay his wife for a no-show job.
Schneiderman contends Meghan Ortt received approximately $21,500 from 2010 to 2014 as part of the scheme. It is alleged that the payments to Ortt’s wife were falsely reported as payments to a pass-through entity.
The attorney general also claims Ortt failed to include his wife on forms filed by the Niagara County GOP Committee. She worked in conjunction with the committee during 2012 and 2013 as a graphic designer, and was one of at least five local people subpoenaed by Schneiderman to appear before the grand jury on March 9.
Ortt is now due back in court on May 8. Coffey, meanwhile, denied his client had anything to do with the document at the center of the case.
Thursday’s court appearances were set in motion on Wednesday when an Albany County grand jury returned the felony indictments against Ortt and Maziarz. Ortt had voluntarily testified before the panel earlier on Wednesday in a move some legal observes viewed as a “Hail Mary” effort to avoid indictment.
But by late Wednesday, Ortt had joined Maziarz in facing the indictments sought by Schneiderman.
Also on Wednesday, former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law violation as a result of a plea bargain agreement. His attorney, Patrick J. Brown, said Wojtaszek appeared Wednesday morning in Albany City Court to acknowledge the unclassified misdemeanor of failing to file a reporting form during the 2012-13 period that has come under Schneiderman’s scrutiny for the past two years.
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 his law license or his post as president of Western Regional Off-Track Betting.
It is also not yet known if the attorney general will involve Wojtaszek in his prosecution, or whether his testimony in the case will be the result of the plea deal. Brown would say only that his client will continue to cooperate.
“He has been cooperative throughout and our expectation is that he will continue to be cooperative,” Brown said.
Ortt, who received the Bronze Star as an Army lieutenant in Afghanistan and who attended Wednesday’s Senate session in the Capitol , has hired the Mercury public relations firm and Coffey to fight the charges.
Ortt has also claimed the attorney general is mounting a political attack at a time when a fragile GOP-dominated majority controls the Senate.
Ortt 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 campaign funds. That separate case is now in the hands of Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr.
The grand jury is probing allegations that money was laundered through campaign contractors to subcontractors in payments that were not properly reported.
A separate case is under investigation by Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. He is probing if $151,000 in reported campaign funds was properly disbursed, according to sources familiar with the situation.