ALBANY – Three felony corruption counts against state Sen. Robert Ortt were dropped by an Albany judge Tuesday just three months after the case was brought against the Republican senator from North Tonawanda by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
Albany County Judge Peter Lynch tossed the case against Ortt, saying there was “no valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational grand jury” to issue the indictment against the senator.
Ortt, who had claimed from the start that the case brought by Democrat Schneiderman was politically motivated, hailed the judge's decision while attacking the attorney general.
“This quick and forthright dismissal exposed Eric Schneiderman for the power hungry, political opportunist that he is. It is my hope that this ruling today will force Mr. Schneiderman to think twice before concocting baseless charges to serve his own radical, progressive political agenda again,’’ Ortt said shortly after Lynch's 10-page decision was released.
But Schneiderman’s office did not back down, saying it disagreed with the judge’s ruling. It maintains that the decision to dismiss does not dispute the attorney general’s claims that Meghan Ortt, the senator’s wife, was paid for a no-show job arranged by then-Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtasek in 2010, when Ortt faced an income loss by agreeing to run for North Tonawanda mayor, a post he won.
“Only in Albany would a senator argue that receiving money for a politically connected, no-show job isn’t a crime,’’ said Amy Spitalnick, a Schneiderman spokeswoman.
While Ortt saw the case against him dismissed, former state Sen. George Maziarz, who was indicted at the same case as part of Schneiderman’s probe of campaign finances in Niagara County, did not fare so well. The judge ordered a separate election law case against Maziarz to commence on Aug. 21. Ortt holds Maziarz's former seat in the Senate.
The grand jury indictment against Ortt involved allegedly false filings of election campaign documents over what Schneiderman said was an illegal scheme intended to make up for a $5,000 cut in pay Ortt would get as mayor from posts he held as North Tonawanda city clerk and treasurer. The attorney general said Meghan Ortt, a graphics designer, received $21,500 from 2010 to 2014, beginning with payments from a “pass-through entity” from a politically connected firm called Synor Marketing. The money paid to Meghan Ortt, the judge noted in his ruling, came from payments from the Niagara County Republican Party to Synor.
The judge noted that Ortt said in his grand jury testimony that he was approached in 2008 by Maziarz, then a politically potent GOP senator, along with Bill Patton and Wojtaszek about running for North Tonawanda mayor.
A year later, in a meeting at Granny’s restaurant, Ortt told Wojtaszek about his concerns of a salary cut if he took the job.
“Wojtaszek suggested he could get Meghan Ortt a job working for Synor Marketing, so she could earn extra money,’’ the judge wrote. In the Granny's parking lot, the judge wrote, Wojtaszek allegedly told Ortt that “we” could get a job for Meghan Ortt. However, the judge added, nothing in the record shows that Wojtaszek, or anyone else, told Ortt that money for his wife’s position would come from the Niagara GOP. The party organization paid $500 a month to Synor, which, in turn, paid it to Ortt's wife, the court papers say.
“The court notes that there was opinion testimony offered to the effect that (1) but for being asked by Henry Wojtasek, Synor probably would not have hired Meghan Ortt, (2) that she had a ‘no-show job,' and (3) that Synor was a conduit for funds to be paid to her,’’ the judge wrote of the grand jury testimony he inspected. He did not identify who offered the “opinion testimony.’’
But the judge noted that it was Ortt’s campaign treasurer, and not the senator, who filled out periodic campaign expense reports that were submitted to the state elections board.
He used strong language in dismissing the indictment against Ortt.
“There is nothing in the record to evidence that defendant Ortt personally prepared, signed or filed the disclosure reports,’’ Lynch wrote in his ruling. He wrote that “there was no evidence whatsoever that defendant Ortt knew the source of the monies paid” by Synor and a second company, Regency Communications, to his wife.
The judge added that, after his review of the grand jury minutes, he found the case against Ortt by Schneiderman was “legally insufficient” to proceed.
The attorney general’s cases against Ortt and Maziarz have been closely watched in Albany, a town still reeling from a bruising decade of corruption cases that has touched rank-and-file lawmakers, the once-mighty heads of the Assembly and Senate and, in the ongoing Buffalo Billion case, several people with long ties to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Ortt had maintained his innocence from the start, and highlighted in his initial court appearance his time his combat military days in Afghanistan. He also brushed away calls for him to resign after the charges were filed.
Ortt represents a Republican-leaning district stretching from Niagara County to parts of Monroe County, but Democrats were planning to use the case against Ortt in his expected re-election effort in 2018.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican who stood by Ortt during his legal troubles, was quick to highlight Lynch’s decision to dismiss the case. “Rob Ortt is a friend and colleague who has maintained his innocence from day one. Now everyone will know what his Senate colleagues and I have known for a very long time – that he is a person of honor and integrity who did everything right,’’ Flanagan said in a statement Tuesday evening.
Word of the judge’s decision came a day before the Senate and Assembly are due back in Albany for a scheduled one-day special session to wrap up potentially several items left undone last week when the Legislature ended its 2017 regular session. The indictment against Ortt was brought in late March, at a time when the Senate, Assembly and Cuomo were in active negotiations over a state budget.
A spokesman for the Senate Democrats declined comment Tuesday.