By Tony Farina;
State Sen. Robert Ortt (R-62nd District) and his predecessor, George Maziarz, plan to vigorously fight the eight felony charges of filing a false instrument returned against them on Wednesday by an Albany County Grand Jury in a case presented by the Public Integrity Unit of Atty. General Eric Schneiderman’s office.
A third leading Republican figure from Niagara County, Henry Wojtaszek, a long-time time aide to former Sen. Maziarz, pleaded guilty to an election law misdemeanor count on Wednesday and is seen as a likely witness in the cases against Maziarz and Ortt. This newspaper reported last week that indictments were expected this week in the probe by the attorney general’s office.
“We are vigorously looking forward to defending this case in court,” said Joseph LaTona, Maziarz’s longtime attorney who appeared with the former senator at his arraignment Thursday afternoon along with co-counsel E. Stewart Jones.
Sen. Ortt, a combat veteran and former mayor of North Tonawanda, said after his arraignment “I am guilty of nothing, I look forward to fighting these charges and believe I will prevail…I look forward to telling New Yorkers the truth about Eric Schneiderman and myself.”
According to Schneiderman, Ortt was indicted on three felony counts related to an alleged pass-through scheme devised to pad his public salary with payments to a no-show job for his wife through a third party that totaled $21,500. It was done allegedly to make up for $5,000 in salary that Ortt lost when he moved from North Tonawanda treasurer to the office of mayor before he ran for the Senate.
The five-count indictment against Maziarz charges the former senator with using his campaign account to secretly pay a staff member involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit $49,000 in 2012 and $46,000 in 2013-14. It is alleged that Maziarz concealed the payments to avoid public scrutiny of his decision to retain the former Senate staffer to do campaign-related work.
Ortt, in maintaining his innocence, said he believes the charges against him are politically motivated and plans to continue to serve in the Senate where he is a member of the Republican majority which controls the Senate with a bare-minimum of 32 votes thanks to the help of eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference.
(Editor’s Note: Just for the record, and perhaps underlying Ortt’s charges that Schneiderman’s probe was politically motivated, it is worth noting that Maziarz and Democratic political operative Steve Pigeon were part of the team that briefly took over the State Senate in 2009 giving Republicans control of the Senate where Schneiderman served on the Democratic side. Schneiderman has now return indictments against both Maziarz and Pigeon)
In what some legal observers characterized as a Hail-Mary bid, Ortt testified before the grand jury Wednesday before his indictment was returned, a move that according to one source obviously did not work and now his testimony could be used by prosecutors against him.
Wojtaszek, the former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee and a former attorney for the City of North Tonawanda, is the current president of the Western Region Off-Track Betting Corporation. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating election law and it is not immediately known if his plea will cost him his law license or his position with OTB. His wife, Caroline, is the Niagara County district attorney, and she recused herself from the case several weeks ago as state investigators moved forward in the probe that really had its roots with the former Moreland Commission on Public Corruption which found issues with un-itemized spending by Maziarz’s campaign committee before it was disbanded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.