ALBANY – Four years after investigators first uncovered something amiss in his political campaign account, former Sen. George Maziarz Friday walked out of a state courthouse two blocks from the Capitol with a misdemeanor plea deal and his wallet lighter by $1,000.
The surprise arrangement, signed off by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and an Albany County judge on Friday afternoon, put to an end Maziarz’s corruption trial scheduled for next week in a case in which he was facing five felony counts.
“Guilty,’’ Maziarz told Judge Peter Lynch during a brief appearance in court Friday afternoon when asked how he pleaded to a relatively minor election law offense of filing a false campaign finance report with the state elections board.
Besides the Class A misdemeanor and $1,000 fine, Maziarz will have to pay a $175 surcharge and a $25 crime victims fee.
E. Stewart Jones, a Troy lawyer who represented Maziarz, called the outcome a major victory for Maziarz.
“It’s astonishing that the attorney general’s office felt that their case was so weak they would withdraw five felonies and accept a misdemeanor in full satisfaction … I think the reason for their decision is they have no confidence they could convict George of any felony of any kind at all,’’ Jones said.
Maziarz, 64, was indicted, along with Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican and Maziarz’s successor in the Senate, in a March 2017 case brought by Schneiderman over alleged election law violations. In a blow to Schneiderman, Lynch last year tossed out the case against Ortt, who had accused the Democratic attorney general of a partisan witch hunt.
But Lynch last fall refused to dismiss the case against Maziarz, saying that to do “would adversely impact public confidence in the criminal justice system.’’
The case against Maziarz began in 2014 when a short-lived anti-corruption commission found Maziarz, among other things, failed to itemize more than $140,000 in expenditures.
The case brought by Schneiderman alleged two political committees he ostensibly controlled – his own Senate campaign and the Niagara County Republican Committee – steered money to an ex-Maziarz staffer who left the state payroll amid charges of sexual harassment.
The attorney general claimed Glenn S. Aronow got $49,000 in 2012 and $46,000 in 2013 and 2014 in payments concealed by Maziarz.
The plea deal was a sharp turn from March 23, 2017, the day Schneiderman announced the unsealing of an indictment against Maziarz. “These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust – and we will hold those responsible to account,’’ Schneiderman said at the time.
On Friday, Schneiderman said the Maziarz misdemeanor guilty plea "sends a strong message to every elected official that if you abuse the public trust you will be rooted out, and there will be a public accounting of your crime.''
Schneiderman said the Maziarz case stood "for a very simple but important principle, which is that you cannot use your campaign account as a slush fund to avoid public scrutiny. No one, not even George Maziarz, can use campaign accounts to deceive the public, flout the law, and pay off friends.”
The Maziarz case began with the anti-corruption panel – called the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. When the wide-ranging work of that commission was abruptly shut down in 2014 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, examined the pending caseloads of the commission. He initially investigated Maziarz, but the case eventually made its way to Schneiderman.
Maziarz served in the Senate from 1995 through 2014, when he decided not to seek another term after the investigation of him surfaced.
In court, Maziarz gave mostly one-word answers to a series of questions put to him by the judge before he signed a document waiving his right to a trial and pleading guilty to the lesser charge. A lawyer from Schneiderman’s office told the judge the state agreed to the terms of the plea deal, but did not elaborate with any reasons.
Afterward, with Maziarz and his wife standing nearby, Jones told a handful of reporters that the plea deal includes no agreement of any kind for the former senator to cooperate with any other investigations the attorney general’s office may have open. “Everything is over with,’’ Jones said.
The lawyer said Maziarz did want to help Aronow, but that he left it to others to figure out how. He said Maziarz never had anything to do with filling out campaign finance reports for the state elections board. He said Maziarz was “betrayed by those he trusted and relied on” that handled the finances of his campaign.
When Ort and Maziarz were indicted, their supporters called it a political witch hunt by Schneiderman, a Democrat, against two Republicans. On Friday, after the plea deal was accepted by the judge, Jones did not back down from that theory.
“I think it’s fair to say there is always a political calculus when a political figure is indicted and, certainly, with the attorney general’s office of the state of New York, plays a large role in the decision-making process,’’ Jones said.
“If George weren’t a prominent senator … the attorney general’s office never would have gone after him,’’ he added.
Maziarz declined to answer questions – except one. When Jones was asked whether he or his client could say if a return to politics was possible for Maziarz, the former senator said: “I’ll defer on that question to my wife, I can tell you that,’’ Maziarz, once the supreme leader of all things Republican in Niagara County, said laughing.
Jones said the outcome of the case – after four years of various probes into the matter involving at least three investigatory bodies – showed the “frivolity” of the case.
“To ask the question is to answer the question,’’ Jones said when asked if the amount of money spent investigating Maziarz was worth what ended up being a low-level misdemeanor plea deal for $1,000.