ALBANY - A current and former state senator were arraigned Thursday on felony charges alleging they illegally shielded campaign payments they wanted hidden from public view.
State Sen. Robert Ortt, a former North Tonawanda mayor whose district stretches into Monroe County, is accused of padding his mayoral salary through a no-show job for his wife, who was indirectly paid $21,500 over four years by the Niagara County GOP.
Former Sen. George Maziarz -- Ortt's predecessor -- is accused of shielding $95,000 in secret campaign payments to a former staff member who left his government job after being accused of sexual harassment.
Ortt and Maziarz, R-Newfane, Niagara County, were charged with three and five counts, respectively, of offering a false instrument for filing, a felony.
Both were arraigned Thursday in Albany County Court after surrendering to State Police earlier in the day. They pleaded not guilty.
"George Maziarz is not guilty," said Joseph LaTona, Maziarz's Buffalo-based attorney. "He pleaded not guilty. He looks forward to being vindicated by the court."
The prosecution is being led by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office, which had the case referred to it by the state Board of Elections.
Both alleged schemes involved the Niagara County Republican Committee, whose former chairman, Henry Wojtaszek, pleaded guilty Wednesday to his role in the alleged Maziarz scheme.
Wojtaszek's guilty plea was related to his work as an "agent" for Maziarz's campaign, which came after he stepped down as Niagara GOP chair in 2009. He is now president and CEO of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., which has stood by him.
In court documents, Schneiderman's office said Niagara County Republicans agreed to pay Ortt's wife $5,000 a year to convince him to run for North Tonawanda mayor in 2009.
The payments, according to the court papers, were to cover his loss in salary: Ortt, who had been the city's joint treasurer and clerk, took roughly $5,000-a-year pay cut to become mayor.
But the payments from the Niagara County Republican Committee didn't go directly to Ortt's wife, according to Schneiderman's office.
Instead, they were routed through a public-relations firm and the former Maziarz staffer -- neither of whom were named in the court documents -- who disguised them as payments for graphic-design work.
That way, Ortt's wife didn't show up on campaign disclosures that are publicly filed, according to Schneiderman's office.
"New Yorkers deserve full and honest disclosures by their elected officials — not the graft and shadowy payments uncovered by our investigation," Schneiderman said in a statement Thursday. "These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust — and we will hold those responsible to account."
'Guilty of nothing'
Ortt, a Republican, vowed to fight the charges and remain in his seat, accusing Schneiderman -- a Democrat -- of waging a political witch hunt.
"I will fight these charges," he said. "I am guilty of nothing, and I look forward to telling New Yorkers the truth about Eric Schneiderman."
Ortt was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. He represents a district that includes all of Niagara and Orleans counties, as well as the towns of Sweden and Ogden in Monroe County.
He succeeded Maziarz, who became a political power broker in western New York as a senator for 20 years before declining to seek re-election.
The campaign fundraising practices of Maziarz and the Niagara County Republicans had attracted the attention of various investigators since at least 2014, when it became a target of the Moreland Commission, an anti-corruption panel Gov. Andrew Cuomo abruptly shut down that year.
In the court papers, Schneiderman's office said Maziarz -- through his political campaign -- continued to employ the former staffer who had been accused of sexual harassment and stepped down from his government job in 2011.
But, like the payments to Ortt's wife, the payments from Maziarz's campaign account and the Niagara County GOP were routed through two public-relations firms rather than paid directly to the former staffer.
That way, the payments to the staffer didn't show up on campaign disclosures, Schneiderman said.
The payments were made between 2012 and 2014, according to court papers.
In 2012, The Buffalo News reported the state paid out $90,000 to settle sexual harassment claims against Glenn Aronow, a former Maziarz staffer. Aronow testified before the grand jury that indicted Maziarz and Ortt, according to The Buffalo News and Niagara Gazette.
Along with LaTona, Maziarz has retained Albany-area attorney E. Stewart Jones, a well-known defense attorney who helped acquit former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno in 2014.
Ortt received support Thursday from Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, who praised the second-term senator for his work ethic and his efforts to combat opioid abuse.
The indictment could lead to a significant political headache for Flanagan.
If Ortt were to be convicted, he would be forced from office. That would leave Flanagan's Republican conference with 31 members, one short of a majority in the 63-seat Senate.
"I believe in our system of jurisprudence, and I have great faith in Rob Ortt," Flanagan said.