By Mike Hudson
In one of the most blatantly political prosecutions in the state’s long history, New York Attorney General and former Democratic state senator Eric Schneiderman is going after war hero and current Republican state Senator Rob Ortt in the hope of tipping the balance of power in the Senate back to the Democrats.
Currently, there are 62 state senators, with one seat vacant. Should Ortt be convicted he would have to step down, and the Democrats would be left in control of the Senate.
He was indicted on March 23, on charges that his wife Meghan “secretly” received payments totaling around $20,000 from the Niagara County Republican Committee while he served as mayor of North Tonawanda.
However, records show, he and his wife paid state and federal income taxes on the money.
“Rob and Meghan paid all appropriate taxes on the retainer and fully disclosed it on the only written instrument that he has ever been responsible for filing, his personal financial disclosure,” said his spokeswoman, Andrea Bozek.
The county GOP committee, then headed by Henry Wojtaszek, was less scrupulous in their filings, however, failing to disclose the payments. Wojtaszek recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of state election law in return for cooperating in the cases against Ortt and former state senator George Maziarz.
Ortt said he was “saddened and sickened” by charges he described as a political hit job.
“I have no doubt that the only reason I am involved in this case, that I was part of this investigation, is to make it more politically appealing and to further Eric Schneiderman’s partisan agenda,” he told reporters.
“We look forward to telling voters the truth about Eric Schneiderman and exposing him for the power hungry, political opportunist he is and I will fight this ridiculous charge,” he added.
Anxious to prove his innocence, Ortt took the unusual step of volunteering to appear before the grand jury convened by Scheiderman to indict him.
While Ortt is charged with filing a false campaign finance report, he was denied the chance to explain that he was not responsible for any filings by the county GOP committee.
“Sen. Ortt was never shown any forms, documents or filings he was eventually accused of offering with the knowledge and intent that they contained false information,” his attorney, Stephen R. Coffey said.
“Specifically, Sen. Ortt was never shown or asked questions about either of the three periodic campaign disclosure reports for the Niagara County Republican Committee that are referenced in the indictment,” Coffey added.
Schneiderman’s office didn’t give Ortt an opportunity to review or respond to the Niagara County GOP filings at the center of the case during Ortt’s grand jury testimony.
“Sen. Ortt was never shown any forms, documents or filings he was eventually accused of offering with the knowledge and intent that they contained false information,” Coffey said. “Specifically, Sen. Ortt was never shown or asked questions about either of the three periodic campaign disclosure reports for the Niagara County Republican Committee that are referenced in the indictment.”
Had Ortt been given the opportunity, the senator would have testified that he never saw the reports, never signed or reviewed them, and was not responsible for their filing, .
Sen. Ortt said, “My constituents in the 62d District know me, they know what kind of person I am, and they know what kind of public servant I have been. I am guilty of nothing.”
In a decision that will almost certainly be appealed, an Albany county judge upheld the charges against Ortt, but the battle is far from over.
“This was just the first of many legal motions that will expose Eric Scheiderman’s political and false charges,” Bozek said in a prepared statement.
The conflict of interest in Schneiderman’s prosecution of Ortt, an American hero who won a Bronze Star during his service in Afghanistan, is obvious.
Perhaps Schneiderman should be the one under investigation.