State Sen. Robert G. Ortt pleaded not guilty to three felony counts in an Albany courtroom Thursday after his Wednesday indictment on election law violations by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
The North Tonawanda Republican appeared in Albany County Court, one day after a grand jury indicted him and former Sen. George D. Maziarz as part of Schneiderman’s prolonged probe of campaign finances in Niagara County. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of one and one-third to four years on each count.
Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by Albany defense attorney Stephen R. Coffey, Ortt 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.”
But Schneiderman weighed in on the case for the first time on Thursday, hinting his efforts will revolve around "no-show jobs and secret payments" he said are "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.”
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.
Maziarz was slated to answer his indictment in the same courtroom at 1 p.m. Thursday.
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 missing 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.
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