The deepest, darkest secrets of Niagara County politics were all set to be exposed next week in an Albany courtroom.
That’s when former State Sen. George D. Maziarz was scheduled for trial on five felony violations of election law. The political machine he assembled over 20 years was already turning on him. Many of Maziarz’s Republican lieutenants testified a year ago before a grand jury, had been granted or waived immunity, and were ready to reveal all in Albany.
But that won’t happen.
After more than four years of investigation, the work of dozens of lawyers, the expenditure of more than $400,000 on top-notch attorneys by Maziarz alone, and new light shining on Niagara County politics, the case ended in a fizzle.
Maziarz, 64, pleaded guilty Friday before Albany County Judge Peter A. Lynch to a misdemeanor charge of “filing a false instrument.” He paid a $1,000 fine and headed back to Newfane.
Maziarz attorney E. Stewart Jones said the plea stemmed from the state’s inability to prove its case, labeling it “astonishing” that the felonies were withdrawn after so much effort.
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman brought the charges, and makes no excuses for how it ended. He no doubt would have preferred the anticipated big show, especially after Lynch dismissed related charges Schneiderman brought last year against Maziarz’s Republican successor in the Senate – Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda.
He now wonders if Maziarz would have been jailed, and whether incarceration was even appropriate. The senator, after all, was never accused of lining his own pockets. Nobody was physically hurt through his crimes. Life went on.
Still, Maziarz admitted to wrongdoing in a case centering around former staffer Glenn S. Aronow, who was accused in 2009 of sexually harassing another Senate employee. The state paid $90,000 to settle the case. Schneiderman charged that Maziarz was behind a “slush fund to avoid public scrutiny” of campaign payments to Aronow.
In addition, Maziarz faces no requirement to “cooperate” in other cases. For now, Albany appears satisfied that Niagara County politics will now be conducted differently.
But there is something to be said for the path Schneiderman followed. No other attorney general, no previous U.S. attorney, no previous district attorney, nor any Moreland Commission ever bothered to bring charges against locals violating the integrity of the electoral process. Because they didn’t act, stuff happened.
“His career ended...and it was the end of being the boss of bosses in Niagara County,” Schneiderman told The Buffalo News Friday. “We exposed what happened.”
The attorney general noted that the Maziarz case and those like it are difficult to prosecute, even though he has noted some victories in New York City. Defense attorneys and others facing such charges agree. Some even dared the law to come after them.
“Prosecutors shy away from cases with a lot of risk,” Schneiderman said. “We’ve been willing to do them; certainly way more than anyone in the office before.”
Did he whiff on Ortt? The case in which the senator’s wife was accused of getting a no-show job arranged by the Maziarz machine?
“We will go after even the hard cases,” Schneiderman said. “And that sends a message that ‘you better watch yourself.’”
The Attorney General’s Office took the case upon the referral of Risa Sugarman, the Board of Elections’ independent counsel. Schneiderman calls that new office key to his efforts.
“In the darkness of the Albany swamp, that’s one reform that worked,” he said.
From the perspective of politics watching, however, the plea means that the ways of Niagara County politics will remain secret. And it means that the spectre of all those “Maziarz guys” taking the stand against their one time leader will never happen.
Those who would have appeared or have been involved include:
• Henry F. Wojtaszek, the former Niagara County GOP chairman and Maziarz protege who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation in a related plea agreement and faces sentencing in coming weeks. He also appeared before a Manhattan grand jury convened in 2015 by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara probing Niagara County. He now heads Western Regional Off Track Betting, where many remnants of the Maziarz machine have reassembled.
• Richard Winter, who was best man at Maziarz’s wedding and Maziarz best man at his, had also testified before the grand jury.
• Michael J. Norris, Republican assemblyman and former Niagara County GOP chairman, appeared before the grand jury in 2017 and before Bharara’s grand jury convened in 2015. He was expected to testify in the Albany trial.
• Timothy P. Synor, whose Synor Marketing Co. played a significant role in producing campaign materials for the 2014 Senate election under scrutiny, testified before the grand jury in 2017.
• Jack Cookfair, Buffalo native and veteran GOP political consultant now based in Syracuse. He was involved in the 2014 campaign, testified before the 2017 grand jury, and was expected to be called as a witness.
Friday’s court appearance was not the first for Maziarz and election law difficulties. A quarter century ago as Niagara County clerk, his election committee pleaded guilty for failure to list the true identity of a campaign contributor discovered by federal and state investigators probing alleged corruption in the county.
That misdemeanor guilty plea in Lockport City Court required Maziarz to contribute $3,733 to the League of Women Voters of the Buffalo Metropolitan Area, pay a $500 fine and barred him from serving as a political committee officer until 1997.
Maziarz, a senior member of the Senate’s GOP hierarchy, stunned the local and state political world in 2014 when he announced he would not seek re-election while at the top of his game. At the time his campaign account held almost $700,000, and since then he has used at least $400,000 to defend himself.
At one time The News calculated at least 19 attorneys were involved in the case, not counting Schneiderman’s staff.
He will not go to jail nor be saddled with a felony record.
Guys like him find a way to enter the fray once more.
Schneiderman maintains his target admitted wrongdoing and must live with the results.
“This ended his career and exposed the corruption of the Niagara County machine,” he said. “The organization has essentially collapsed.”
But only part of the story will ever be told.