There was a time when they were all in it together.
But that was 40 years ago, back when the powerful political machine that would dominate Niagara County for decades was stuffing envelopes around kitchen tables – back when George D. Maziarz first jumped into North Tonawanda politics.
Now, despite his rise from city clerk to the State Senate’s highest echelons, despite all the alliances, bonds and friendships, it’s all come crashing down.
When the former Republican state senator pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor on March 2 to satisfy five felony election law charges brought by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, most observers thought the plea meant the inside story of Maziarz’s Niagara County machine would never be told.
But now Maziarz has released hundreds of pages of legal documents accumulated by his lawyers for the March 5 trial that never happened, including dozens of statements given to the FBI by his staffers and associates. They outline some of the testimony that would have come out in an Albany courtroom.
The documents detail political intrigue, betrayal among friends, questions about use of campaign funds, and even colleagues closely hugging each other as they felt for FBI wires. One former Maziarz staffer recorded at least 10 conversations with her colleagues for the FBI.
It all amounts to a sad tale of friendships and long associations disintegrating in the face of a criminal investigation.
“I’m disappointed that some of my closest friends and the people whose careers I helped build were gaming the system,” Maziarz told The Buffalo News in his first interview since questions about his campaign finances arose in 2014.
Those whom Maziarz now disowns include lobbyist Richard D. Winter, who was in Maziarz’s wedding and Maziarz in his; Michael J. Norris, a key cog in the Niagara County machine as GOP chairman and now in the Assembly; and Henry F. Wojtaszek, another former party chairman who now heads Western Region Off Track Betting.
All appeared before Schneiderman’s special grand jury a year ago, and all were expected to testify in the trial.
The most poignant breakup may involve Wojtaszek, a 25-year friend and protege whom Maziarz envisioned succeeding him in the Senate one day. Wojtaszek pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor election law charge in connection with the case and expects to pay a small fine when he is sentenced in April.
But Niagara County’s political trail is now littered by the wreckage of shattered friendships.
“I’m very proud of the work we accomplished in Niagara County,” Wojtaszek said in a Friday interview. “I’m saddened by the individual I realize George Maziarz has become.”
Maziarz, 64, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of campaign finance law, and paid a $1,000 fine with a conditional discharge. In essence, he is branded a minor criminal.
“I took a plea to a misdemeanor to get this thing over,” he said, “hopefully to put light on the real crimes, and that someone will do something about it.”
His former colleagues paint him in a more sinister light. They say he ordered old campaign finance records, including receipts, destroyed when state investigators began probing in 2014. Wojtaszek says he refused the order, prompting the rift with his old friend.
Maziarz contends he was no longer obliged to keep records that in some cases were more than a decade old.
Years of investigation
The former state senator notes that Schneiderman’s felony charges required years of effort and dozens of lawyers. He estimates $1 million was spent on an army of attorneys for both sides – all ending in the most minor of election law transgressions.
Maziarz joins other targets who have complained about Schneiderman’s tactics. They include Republican State Sen. Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda (whose related charges were dismissed by an Albany County judge), and Democratic political operative G. Steven Pigeon, a one time Schneiderman foe in the Senate who faces charges brought by the attorney general. They say Schneiderman's charges were politically motivated.
But the Attorney General’s Office points out that Schneiderman remains one of the few prosecutors to enforce laws that safeguard the electoral process. Schneiderman would not consent to an interview, but his office notes he has prosecuted Democrats as well as Republicans for election law violations, as recently as earlier this month against the Democratic mayor of Mount Vernon.
“Any neutral observer would not think this office is pursuing a political agenda,” said spokesman Eric Soufer.
In addition, an Albany County judge last year rejected an attempt by Maziarz’s lawyers to dismiss the case because of “selective prosecution.”
Maziarz says he wants his story to come to light. Others say he wants to get even.
The former senator questions how approximately $350,000 exited his campaign treasury and why prosecutors have not sought charges over how the money was spent. And Maziarz says Schneiderman, a one-time Democratic state senator from Manhattan, has concentrated on Republicans to help wrest away control of the state’s last GOP bastion.
“He ignored some real crimes to go after people,” Maziarz said. “The Democratic Party’s mission in New York is to take over the Senate because it’s the only thing left. To indict Rob Ortt and myself for falsely filing documents we never saw or signed was ludicrous.”
Inner circle witnesses
The partial aim of the defense plan devised by Maziarz’s lawyers was to cast doubt on the testimony of inner circle witnesses, including Wojtaszek and Winter, the lobbyist, Maziarz said.
As a result, Maziarz said his attorneys subpoenaed records ranging from Wojtaszek’s training in campaign finance filings to his supervision of Western Region OTB. The Maziarz lawyers also issued subpoenas seeking information on Western Region OTB’s hiring of former Niagara County Republican Chairman Scott P. Kiedrowski, and its suites at Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres games.
In addition, the lawyers sought information about Wojtaszek’s dealings on various Niagara County projects involving companies owned by Winter, including Richardson Management. They also sought information regarding Waste Management Inc. and Four Points Communications, as well as Niagara Falls attorney John P. Bartolomei. Maziarz's attorneys asked about Wojtaszek's efforts regarding the Niagara County Legislature’s authorization of sale and distribution of certain kinds of fireworks.
Pointing to information his attorneys hoped to receive from the subpoenas, Maziarz said “the case collapsed around him.”
The subpoenas, however, were never acted upon after the Maziarz attorneys withdrew their request just before the scheduled start of trial.
“Our attorney said they were irrelevant and had nothing to do with this case,” Wojtaszek said.
Maziarz said his attorneys would have asked for their reinstatement had the trial proceeded. He noted that some of the subpoenaed entities hired the Harris Beach law firm to suppress the requested information.
The News in February reported that many of those who had appeared before a grand jury and obtained immunity now had jobs or contracts at Western Region OTB, where Wojtaszek is president. Kiedrowski, a former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee who was interviewed by the FBI and testified before the federal grand jury, is the agency's vice president of operations. Two other former Maziarz allies, Richard D. Winter and Glenn S. Aronow, also work as consultants for the Western Region OTB.
Focus on campaign staffers
From the beginning, Schneiderman accused the Maziarz operation of trying to hide payments to Aronow, a campaign operative accused in 2009 of sexual harassment while working at the Senate majority office in Buffalo.
The state settled the case for $90,000, though Aronow never admitted guilt. Aronow also insists he agreed to the settlement only after Senate attorneys threatened him with its cost.
Eventually, the FBI became involved when former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara inherited the case from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s disbanded Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. The commission had been examining the campaign’s unitemized expenses. The documents stemming from the FBI investigation suggested the scheme centered around hiding Aronow’s consulting payments to avoid claims that Maziarz employed a sexual harasser.
Maziarz said he went along with the deal because Aronow needed work and he believed that the lawyers in his inner circle – Norris and Wojtaszek – would play by the rules. Ditto for his campaign treasurer, Laureen Jacobs.
“My idea was that I had three people taking care of the books and watching each other,” he said. “I never even saw a treasurer’s report.”
Maziarz said his staff – and not him – was responsible for collecting data and approving and filing the campaign finance reports. He dismisses any notion he should ultimately be held accountable.
“State senators don’t submit financial statements. And I had Mike Norris on my staff, an attorney and former elections commissioner,” he added. “I never filed a campaign statement in my life. I wouldn’t know how to.”
Wojtaszek maintains that Maziarz was aware of the Aronow arrangement all along.
“He was the one who made the decision to pay him in a roundabout way,” said Wojtaszek.
Eventually, the FBI zeroed in on Maziarz staffers. Its documents show that his former chief of staff, Alisa Colatarci-Reimann, told interviewing agents that she initiated at least 10 phone conversations or wore a wire to record Aronow, Winter and Norris.
“During another meeting with Winter, he hugged Reimann and felt her back as though he was checking for a recording device,” an FBI document from 2014 interview of Reimann reported. “Winter told Reimann that during a previous investigation of Maziarz they would have conversations on paper and then burn the paper.”
The documents also reveal that Niagara County Republicans already had been obscuring payments to politically radioactive campaign consultants. Wojtaszek, for example, told the FBI in 2016 that the Niagara County Republican Committee was indirectly paying consultants for former Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti as far back as 2012. According to FBI documents, Wojtaszek said Norris – an assemblyman who was then the Niagara County Republican chairman – funneled money for former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra’s consulting services through Syracuse political consultant Jack Cookfair.
Wojtaszek told the FBI that Norris wanted to disguise campaign payments to Giambra because of controversy surrounding Giambra, including "negative polling numbers when Giambra left the office of Erie County executive," according to FBI documents.
Norris, however, told the FBI he was not aware that the $10,000 campaign check he sent Cookfair Media was to pay Giambra.
Wojtaszek and Norris continue to offer opposing versions of how the idea to obscure campaign payments was hatched.
Wojtaszek said Norris devised the pass-through.
“Those invoices from Jack Cookfair were sent to me at Mike Norris’ request,” Wojtaszek told The News. “Mike is the one who did not want to pay directly.”
On Friday, a spokesman said Norris respects Wojtaszek as a “political ally and friend” but disputes his claims.
“The assemblyman disagrees with Henry’s comments on these issues and stands by his earlier statements,” the Norris spokesman said.
The same method also paid Aronow, the former state Senate staffer accused of sexual harassment, in 2013.
According to FBI documents, Cookfair was recruited to act as a pass-through to Aronow. But Cookfair told the FBI in 2016 that Wojtaszek never revealed that Niagara County Republican Committee funds paid to him were destined for Aronow.
“Cookfair learned the source of the funds when he received two checks from the NCRC,” according to FBI documents, “one check from the George Maziarz Senate campaign and one check from the Mark Grisanti for Senate campaign, all of which were earmarked to pay Aronow.”
Also in 2016, Norris outlined the party’s indirect payments to campaign workers. Norris told the FBI that as party chairman, he was unaware that a Niagara County Republican Committee check for $30,000 paid to Cookfair Media in 2012 at Wojtaszek’s request, ultimately paid Wojtaszek $10,000 and Giambra’s Strategic Partners $20,000.
“Norris opined that Wojtaszek and Giambra did not want to be paid directly from the NCRC so as to avoid their names being included on the NCRC Board of Elections filing,” according to a 2016 FBI document. Norris told the FBI that he thought donors and volunteers would be angry if they saw Wojtaszek and Strategic Partners had been paid by the Niagara County Republican Committee.
Wojtaszek, meanwhile, told the FBI the check for $10,000 covered a variety of expenses he incurred while working on the Grisanti campaign.
Giambra, who said he also was interviewed by the FBI, told The News it was “no secret” that he was working to elect Grisanti, a close friend.
“I got paid through Cookfair; that’s how they paid their consultants,” the former county executive told The News. “Why they did it that way, I don’t know.”
Norris acknowledged to the FBI in 2015 that Maziarz wanted the Niagara County GOP to directly pay Aronow’s Regency Communications firm.
The state contended a similar arrangement to pay Aronow involved passing money through Synor Marketing, a long time Niagara County GOP consulting firm, and Richardson Management, owned by Winter, the Maziarz friend and lobbyist.
At the time he pressed charges one year ago, Schneiderman charged that Maziarz orchestrated a “multi-layered pass-through scheme” that funneled money to Aronow. To conceal the payments, the state also said Maziarz and others falsely reported the expenditures on five separate campaign finance filings with the Board of Elections.
Maziarz faults the attorney general for following the wrong trail in the case – prosecuting charges of filing false statements rather than finding answers about how $350,000 in campaign funds were spent. Accountants hired by his attorneys flagged the spending as questionable because it was either unexplained or reported as checks made out to "cash" or staff members.
Schneiderman makes no apologies and points to the former senator’s admission to committing a crime. He previously said even an unsuccessful felony prosecution signals his willingness to take on “the hard cases.”
Questions about the campaign money, said Soufer, the AG's spokesman, will eventually gain the attention of local prosecutors.
Maziarz acknowledges that some will hold him ultimately responsible for the Aronow payments. But he still thinks he was betrayed by people he trusted.
He also knows good government types will forever scorn his use of hundreds of thousands of dollars from his leftover campaign funds to pay for four years of criminal defense attorneys.
“It’s not what I wanted to use it for. Believe me,” he said.
“We thought, naively, that prosecutors would go after the missing money,” he added. “It was disheartening, to say the least.”