Former state Sen. George D. Maziarz, facing five felony election law violations and the possibility of years in prison, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law violation and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine Friday in an Albany courtroom.
Once the undisputed king of Niagara County Republican politics, Maziarz was slated to stand trial beginning Wednesday on the campaign finance counts brought by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The proceedings had been eagerly anticipated as an expose of the Niagara County GOP organization long dominated by Maziarz, and featuring a local who’s who of political players.
But now the trial cast by Schneiderman as a major effort to ensure clean elections in New York State will not proceed. Appearing Friday before Albany County Judge Peter A. Lynch, Maziarz admitted his guilt to “filing a false instrument.”
As a result, the scheduled parade of Niagara County figures to the witness box is canceled, as is their testimony. Many of the Republicans formerly part of the Maziarz inner circle received immunity from a 2017 grand jury and were expected to testify against their former leader.
They included major Niagara County figures like Henry F. Wojtaszek (who waived immunity) and Assemblyman Michael J. Norris, both former GOP chairmen. They testified last March before a special Albany County grand jury convened by Schneiderman, and were expected to appear in the trial previously slated for next week.
Still to be determined is final disposition of a related case involving Wojtaszek, an attorney and president of Western Regional Off-Track Betting. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law charge in 2017 and has yet to be sentenced.
Also left unanswered are lingering questions about the former senator's staff, a host of whom retained attorneys, as well as unaccounted-for funds.
Schneiderman had contended that Maziarz orchestrated a “multi-layered pass-through scheme” enabling him to use money from his own Committee to Elect Maziarz State Senate and also the Niagara County Republican Committee that he dominated. He was charged with funneling secret campaign payments to a former Senate staffer who had left government service amid charges of sexual harassment.
Schneiderman alleged the two committees paid former Maziarz staffer Glenn S. Aronow $49,000 in 2012 and $46,000 in 2013-14. To conceal the payments – and to avoid public scrutiny of his decision to retain the former staffer for work on campaigns – the state contends Maziarz and others falsely reported the expenditures on five separate filings with the State Board of Elections.
Maziarz’s plea to a lesser charge follows the expenditure of more than $400,000 in his leftover campaign funds on attorneys and accountants associated with the case. State election law allows former officeholders to retain their campaign treasuries and spend their funds on expenses like criminal defense.
The Maziarz plea marks the second Schneiderman effort to conclude without felony convictions stemming from the 2014 Niagara County elections. The attorney general had also charged Maziarz’s successor – state Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda – with five similar felony election law violations in 2017. The state contended that before running for mayor of North Tonawanda, the Army veteran who won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan participated in an illegal scheme to pad his taxpayer-funded salary.
Schneiderman charged then that in order to make up for a $5,000 reduction in annual salary he would be paid as mayor (he previously served as city clerk and treasurer), Ortt and others devised a pass-through scheme to pay his wife for a no-show job.
However, Lynch dismissed those charges last June, ruling 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 had claimed from the start that the case brought by Democrat Schneiderman was politically motivated.
Maziarz, one of the top members of the Republican Senate, stunned the local and state political world when he announced in 2012 while at the top of his game that he would not run for re-election.
The former senator’s campaign spending first surfaced in May 2014 when City & State magazine reported that documents accumulated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s now-defunct Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption showed Maziarz led the state in unspecified campaign expenditures.
The campaign fund recorded $140,000 in unitemized expenditures between 2008 and 2013, according to City & State, and Moreland Commission documents indicated the money paid for everything from wine to a clown rental.
Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet S. Bharara then launched a probe after the Moreland Commission’s demise, requiring figures like Wojtaszek and Norris to testify before a federal grand jury. The case was eventually referred to Schneiderman.