By Tony Farina, The Niagara Falls Reporter
A federal investigation into his campaign spending stemming from the findings by the governor’s now defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption may have prompted powerful State Sen. George Maziarz of Newfane to not seek re-election, given his shocking announcement Sunday night amid signs that the federal probe is gaining steam.
Maziarz, a Republican and 19-year incumbent, had been in campaign mode for several weeks prior to his surprise announcement Sunday night which followed the resignations earlier in the week of two of his top aides, Chief of Staff Alisa Colatarci and Office Manager Marcus Hall who have both retained criminal attorneys.
In his statement, Maziarz said that he had been considering retirement for several months and said he realized that “I just did not have the passion and commitment that I have had in the past to see it through.” The unexpected withdrawal by Maziarz came as Niagara Falls lawyer Johnny Destino, who lost to Maziarz in a GOP primary two years ago, was getting ready to run against him again, this time as a Democrat.
As of late Thursday, Maziarz spoke to the Reporter about his re-election plans, giving no hint of the announcement to come just three days later. And on Sunday, before he released his written statement, Maziarz told Publisher Frank Parlato that despite word of a federal investigation, he did nothing wrong.
“Every expense is accounted for,” he told Parlato, the same position he took when the Moreland Commission findings on campaign spending became public earlier this year and named Maziarz as the legislator with the most number of entries. The commission was disbanded as part of a budget deal between Cuomo and state lawmakers.
According to City and State magazine, which did an analysis of the commission’s documents, Maziarz topped the list of un-itemized campaign expense filings totaling more than $140,000 between 2008 and 2013—which averages out to more than $23,000 a year, or nearly $2,000 a month. City and State said the senator’s campaign also had “over $67,000 of charges and expenditures to Chase and Chase Card Services” identified broadly as “office” expenses. Close to $40,000 of those expenses were payments to his brother as a consultant.
The Niagara Falls Reporter has learned that Laureen Jacobs, the treasurer of Maziarz’s campaign committee, has complied with a federal subpoena issued by a Manhattan grand jury seeking records of the committee’s activities.
Like the two members of Maziarz’s staff who resigned earlier in the week, Jacobs has hired a top criminal defense attorney. Terry Connors of Buffalo, who now represents Jacobs, declined to comment on the investigation but said “there’s no claim she [Laureen] has done anything wrong. She has been asked to provide documents as treasurer [of the committee] and she has complied.”
But word was spreading quickly in legal circles on Monday that the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was stepping up his probe of the Moreland Commission findings related to Maziarz and possibly other lawmakers on the list which included Republican State Sen. Patrick Gallivan.
“This thing [the investigation] is getting legs, and they are clearly trying to come up with something,” said one legal source. “They are trying to talk to people, they are reaching out.”
Did the ratcheted up federal probe, that included at least one other subpoena for records from Maziarz’s office, figure in his decision not to seek re-election? The man known for years as “King George” says it did not, but his decision certainly seemed to come out of nowhere and has thrown the 62nd District Senate seat up for grabs.
Niagara County Democrats, who have labored under Maziarz’s rule for years, are rallying behind Destino, the lawyer and Niagara Falls School Board member who narrowly lost for Niagara Falls mayor in 2011 against Paul Dyster, no friend to Maziarz.
Destino said Maziarz’s decision not to seek re-election was unexpected, for sure, but not surprising given the circumstances, and whether Maziarz was in or not, he was preparing a vigorous campaign after receiving his party’s endorsement and filing petitions for his candidacy three days before Maziarz backed out.
“It is full steam ahead,” says Destino who has the strong backing of Niagara County Democratic Chairman Nick Forster who has been working the phones feverishly in the last 24 hours calling on Democrats to unite behind Destino for the campaign against a still uncertain Republican rival.
“My campaign will be about giving everybody a fair chance, not just the campaign contributors,” says Destino. “I want to put the focus back on supporting working families,” says the married father of three young sons. “I want to put the focus on education and getting things done in Albany, not local politics and patronage.”
Niagara County Republicans are expected to tap North Tonawanda Mayor Robert Ortt as their candidate, mayor of the city where Maziarz started his political career in 1978 when he was named city clerk. They must make their decision within three days and Ortt, seen as Maziarz’s choice, is expected to accept the nomination possibly as early as today (July 15).
But there is a third candidate for the seat, 24-year-old Tea Party favorite Gia Arnold from Holley, in Orleans County, who will run in the GOP primary and is hoping to win the support of the Conservative Party with the help of former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and others, including political activist Rus Thompson. She has only three days to convince the Conservative Party’s State Executive Committee, which had supported Maziarz, to give her the endorsement.
“I received the Orleans County Conservative Party’s endorsement,” Arnold told the Reporter, who said she is glad Maziarz won’t represent the district in the future, saying “he has done little or nothing for the district” which is losing population because of high taxes and energy costs.
The 62nd District includes all of Niagara and Orleans Counties and two towns, Ogden and Sweden, in the western part of Monroe County. Republicans reportedly hold about a 5,000 person voter edge, and a three-way race, should it develop in November, could help Destino.
Niagara County Democratic Legislator Jason Zona, a captain in the Niagara Falls Fire Department, said he hopes to rally Democrats behind Destino, saying “Johnny took a lot of lumps that were uncalled for when he challenged George in a primary, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help him become the next senator.”
Zona said he is hoping that Destino, as senator, can help to encourage a better working relationship in the Niagara County Legislature which is controlled by Republicans 11 – 4.
“George has been running things for years, and he ran the legislature with an iron fist,” said Zona. “It has been very difficult getting things done for the community. But with his departure, maybe things will loosen up and we’ll be able to accomplish a lot more. You hate to see things like this [federal investigation] but I hope some good will come out of it for Niagara County. Having said that, I hope [George] enjoys his retirement with his family and I wish him well.”