Ethics reform fades as another lawmaker is indicted
Another sitting state legislator, Sen. Rob Ortt, has been indicted on corruption charges, along with George Maziarz, who held the western New York Senate seat before him. The indictments come as ethics reform proposals in the state budget are faltering.
Ortt is accused of creating a no-show job for his wife to pad his own salary while he was mayor of North Tonawanda in Niagara County.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Maziarz, who held the Senate seat before Ortt for more than two decades, concocted a scheme to secretly funnel money from his campaign funds to a former staffer. The staffer had to leave the Senate job because of sexual harassment charges. Maziarz is accused of then concealing the campaign fund machinations from the state Board of Elections.
Ortt said he’ll fight the charges and is staying in the Senate for now, with the blessing of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
“I believe in our system of jurisprudence, and I have great faith in Rob Ortt,” Flanagan said. “He’s a good friend and a good colleague.”
Flanagan said he did not and will not ask Ortt to step down.
The GOP has a fragile hold on the Senate leadership, with only 31 members. Thirty-two constitutes a majority in the chamber. They lead the Senate because one Democrat meets with the GOP, and several other breakaway Democrats informally govern with the Republicans.
The budget, which Ortt apparently will help to approve, is due next week and includes ethics changes proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But the governor has signaled that at least some of them, including strengthening voter access, are on life support.
“We’re going to try like heck,” Cuomo said on March 21. “It’s not necessarily a budget discussion.”
Cuomo said the budget is “primarily about finances,” and he said the voting issues will be taken up “after the budget.”
Susan Lerner, with the reform group Common Cause, said the voter access improvements like early voting and automatic voter registration actually do have fiscal implications and belong in the budget.
“It was wise of the governor in the first instance to start this discussion and place it in the budget,” Lerner said. “We’re quite surprised to have him back off now.”
And Lerner said “trying like heck” really isn’t good enough.
“We’re happy to see that the governor said he’s behind these reforms,” Lerner said. “But we need to see him actually fight for them.”
The governor has maximum leverage to get his agenda passed in the state budget because he has powers to add policy language and tell the Legislature to either accept his changes or the government will shut down.
Legislative leaders already seem to be hedging on the chances of ethics reform being part of the budget. Flanagan said lawmakers already have approved a number of ethics reforms.
“In the last five or six years, there’s been very, very significant ethics reforms in the state of New York in ways that people don’t even realize yet,” Flanagan said. “We have more transparency and more disclosure for elected officials in the state of New York than any other state in the country.”
Lerner disagrees that lawmakers have achieved significant changes to a system that’s led to the indictments, convictions and jailing of dozens of lawmakers over the past several years.
Lerner said while she’s disheartened that yet another legislator has been accused of corruption, she’s relieved that state prosecutors under Schneiderman are taking on investigations now that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who achieved prison terms for both former legislative leaders, has been fired by President Donald Trump.