State Sen. Robert G. Ortt took the first step in his defense against felony election law charges Wednesday by claiming prosecutors never allowed him to provide relevant testimony to an Albany County grand jury during his voluntary appearance on March 23.
Ortt, the North Tonawanda Republican who was indicted on a charge of “filing a false instrument” in a case that has also snared former Sen. George D. Maziarz, claims in papers filed late Tuesday that he was “startled” to not be given a chance to present his own additional testimony after he was quizzed about payments from the Niagara County Republican Committee to his wife, Meghan.
Because he voluntarily offered to appear before the panel probing election law violations in Niagara County, and because he anticipated the opportunity to present more and pertinent information, Ortt contends the case should be dismissed.
“Inexplicably, Sen. Ortt was summarily denied that opportunity and the grand jury was denied relevant and competent evidence which constituted the crux of the state’s case,” said Stephen R. Coffey, the Albany attorney defending Ortt.
In the new papers, Coffey contends that a grand jury witness must be allowed to give all relevant evidence concerning the case. He said the prosecution headed by Assistant Attorney General Christopher Baynes “intentionally prevented Sen. Ortt from exercising that right and prevented the grand jury from considering relevant and competent evidence.”
The attorney also says that while Ortt is charged with filing a false campaign finance report, he was denied the chance to explain that he was not responsible for any filings by the county GOP committee.
“Sen. Ortt however was never shown any forms, documents or filings he was eventually accused of offering with the knowledge and intent that they contained false information,” Coffey said. “Specifically, Sen. Ortt was never shown or asked questions about either of the three periodic campaign disclosure reports for the Niagara County Republican Committee that are referenced in the indictment. Mr. Baynes refused to allow Sen. Ortt to provide any additional information to the grand jury without conducting any inquiry into the relevancy, materiality or competency of the subject matter.”
Coffey said had Ortt been given the opportunity, the senator would have testified that he never saw the reports, never signed or reviewed them, and was not responsible for their filing. He also would have answered any questions put to him.
Coffey contends case law stipulates that a grand jury witness testifying in his or her own behalf must be allowed to give all relevant evidence concerning the case. Because he contends Ortt was not afforded the chance, he said the indictment should be dismissed.
Ortt voluntarily testified before the grand jury in a move some legal observers viewed as a “Hail Mary” effort to avoid indictment.
Andrea Bozek, the public relations specialist retained by Ortt, also noted in a statement separate from the court filings that the case continues to result from state Attorney General’s Eric T. Schneiderman’s “political and false charges.”
“Rob and Meghan paid all appropriate taxes on the retainer and fully disclosed it on the only written instrument that he has ever been responsible for filing, his personal financial disclosure,” she said.
Schneiderman’s office remains confident in the case it has prepared following its own investigation in conjunction with the FBI and following a referral from the State Board of Elections.
“Mr. Ortt’s motion contains a number of errors and omissions that we will address in our response papers," said spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick. "We look forward to proving our felony corruption charges against Mr. Ortt in court.”
The attorney general also continues to emphasize its prosecution in other cases of high level Democrats such as former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.
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 attorney general says.
Schneiderman says 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.”
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.
Former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek pleaded guilty on March 23 to a misdemeanor election law violation as a result of a plea bargain agreement in connection with the case.
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