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New chairman says Niagara County GOP must show 'integrity'

Another former top Niagara County Republican is expected to find out his punishment Friday in an Albany courtroom.

It’ll be another reminder of the challenge the county’s new GOP chairman faces.

Richard L. Andres Jr., who became the party chairman last week, said the Niagara County Republican Party must regain the trust of voters.

“The onus is on us to prove that we’re again a party of integrity and can continue to provide good government,” Richard L. Andres Jr. told The Buffalo News after his election.

Andres’ selection comes in the wake of former State Sen. George D. Maziarz’ recent guilty plea and $1,000 fine for a misdemeanor count of violating state laws regarding financial disclosure forms. Former county GOP chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek took a similar plea deal last year and finds out his sentence on Friday.

Maziarz has also accused former staffers of stealing his campaign funds.

Last summer, an Albany County judge threw out three felony corruption counts against state Sen. Robert 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 Republican senator from North Tonawanda. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office maintained the decision to dismiss did not dispute the attorney general’s claims the senator’s wife was paid for a no-show job arranged by Wojtasek in 2010.

Richard L. Andres Jr. at a news conference in Lockport April 6, 2018. (Thomas J. Prohaska/The Buffalo News)

Andres, a county legislator from North Tonawanda, succeeds Adam VanDeMark, the Lockport city chairman, who stepped down after Ortt told him people were planning to run against him for county GOP chairman.

Andres’ election wasn’t unanimous, so he also has work to do for party unity. Lockport Common Council President David R. Wohleben called it “a huge conflict of interest for a legislator to be chairman.”

“Our party must not only be one of sound political values, but of personal ones as well,” Andres said in a statement announcing his election. “Our values of limited government and fiscal responsibility must not be any less or more important than our values of integrity and personal responsibility.

“Right now, the people in our office are squeaky-clean,” Andres told The News.

GOP control

Andres said Ortt asked him to run for chairman. An election for the post is held every two years, after committee members are chosen in the September primary, but VanDeMark gave up the post soon after learning of the challenge. He becomes first vice chairman.

"I have known Rich Andres for many years, and I’m grateful that he has decided to serve as chairman," Ortt said. "I have every confidence in his ability to unify and lead our party going forward."

The GOP dominates Niagara County politics.

Republicans hold an 11-4 majority in the County Legislature, hold majorities in all 12 towns and also the cities of Lockport and North Tonawanda, and make up the county's entire State Legislature delegation.

Even in Niagara Falls, the Democrats' power base, two of the five City Council members are Republicans.

Four countywide officeholders are Democrats, but they had Republican cross-endorsements.


Party division

Some Republicans do not see Andres as the right leader for the party.

Two voted against Andres at the April 10 executive committee meeting in Wheatfield: Wohleben, the Lockport Common Council president, and county Public Information Officer Christian W. Peck.

Wohleben called it conflict of interest for a legislator to be chairman.

He said it's not uncommon for the GOP chairman to ask the legislators for various actions. Andres already is a legislator. His role also could hurt other Republican candidates, Wohleben said.

"That chairman decides where monies go during election season," Wohleben said. "When he's running for re-election (as a legislator), the job of the chairman is to help people get elected. How's he going to do that?"

Wohleben said he wanted VanDeMark to stay, pointing to Republican success in knocking two Democrats off the Lockport Common Council last year.

"I just think (Andres) was a bad choice, and I don't know why Adam was asked to step down," Wohleben said. "Let's face it: How many years has North Tonawanda had the chairmanship? And to be quite frank, we've had a lot of problems in the party."

Peck said that as a direct employee of the county legislature, "it would be highly inappropriate for me to cast a ballot to elect a member of that body party chairman."

Andres said he aims to unify the party.

"It's a team sport in a lot of ways," he said. "I've worked with many other candidates."

Hatch Act concerns

VanDeMark, who will continue as Lockport city GOP chairman, became county chairman in December, when Scott P. Kiedrowski resigned.

"This is the truth, because I have been going over this basically since January. I really don't have the time to do it," said VanDeMark.

But there also were restrictions on VanDeMark because of his job as an industrial production specialist with the Defense Contract Management Agency. The federal agency oversees the activities of local defense contractors. The federal Hatch Act limits the political activities of federal employees.

When VanDeMark was considering seeking the Lockport city GOP chairmanship, he asked a Pentagon lawyer for an opinion. VanDeMark was told he could serve as chairman but couldn't raise funds for the party.

Andres called raising money a key role of any party chairman. He said he intends to solicit donations "as every chairman in New York State does."

Ortt brought up the Hatch Act at a recent meeting, VanDeMark said, "as a question, if I was able to continue and fully do the job as chairman."

"I know there are people out there who thought the Hatch Act was going to be an issue, and the time that I had to dedicate to it (being chairman)," VanDeMark said. "I strongly believe the Hatch Act issue was put to rest."

"We raise funds (in Lockport) every year and we never have a problem," Wohleben said. "We have people who raise funds. His (VanDeMark's) name is never on it. It's the mayor or the treasurer that does it."

Some Lockport-area Republicans have been suspicious of the North Tonawanda group that has controlled the party for more than 20 years.

Wohleben is among those who think the North Tonawanda contingent simply wants to keep power.

VanDeMark said the committee has helped him.

"They certainly appeared to give me the same level of help and support on things as they gave Chairman Kiedrowski," VanDeMark said. "They offered their support. They certainly did a lot of work for me. The committee as a whole is a hardworking bunch."

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