Brendan J. Lyons
July 18, 2014
A federal investigation of state Sen. George D. Maziarz is examining dozens of payments to the family of Maziarz’s longtime re-election committee treasurer as well as tens of thousands of dollars in unitemized checks that were made out to cash and never reported to the state Board of Elections, according to people briefed on the matter.
Maziarz has been a senator for nearly 20 years in a district that includes Niagara and Orleans counties, and portions of Monroe County. He announced Sunday he would not seek re-election, three days after his spokesman declined to answer questions about federal grand jury subpoenas issued recently to two former staff members, including his chief of staff, Alisa Colatarci.
The probe by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan is following up an investigation of 28 state senators started last year by the state Moreland Commission To Investigate Public Corruption, which was abruptly shut down in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Bharara, who subpoenaed the commission’s records, criticized Cuomo for disbanding the commission. Bharara is also examining whether the governor’s office interfered with the commission, prevented it from issuing subpoenas, or sought to block its efforts to investigate state government corruption, according to people briefed on the matter.
Public records show that in 2012 and 2013 the Maziarz campaign account gave money to a youth softball team in Broome County — outside the senator’s district. Laureen Jacobs, aNiagara Falls hospital administrator who has been Maziarz’s campaign treasurer for about 20 years, has a daughter who plays on the youth softball team. The club team does not solicit advertising and players are responsible for raising a $1,750 sponsorship fee to participate in the elite league, according to the club’s manager.
The senator’s campaign account also made thousands of dollars in purchases from a business — Southern Living At Home — where Jacobs previously worked as a sales associate. Reports filed with the state Board of Elections show six payments to Southern Living At Home from the Maziarz campaign. The entries list only the acronym “SLAH” and provide a company address as a post office box in Niagara Falls. Public records indicate Jacobs, 52, controlled the post office box as part of her former side job for Southern Living At Home. The elections’ filings don’t disclose that Jacobs was associated with the business.
The Maziarz campaign filings also itemize just $3,159 of the approximately $7,000 in debit card and check purchases the campaign made from Southern Living At Home, an Alabama-based company that shut down last year, according to information obtained by the Times Union.
Terrence M. Connors, a Buffalo attorney who represents Jacobs in the probe, declined to comment on the campaign expenditures.
“There is no claim that Laureen Jacobs did anything wrong,” Connors said. “If she is asked to produce documents from the committee she will produce them.”
The Justice Department‘s investigation of Maziarz’s campaign expenses is also examining more than $137,000 in checks that were written to “cash,” including roughly $60,000 in expenditures that were never reported to the state Board of Elections, according to a person briefed on the case.
Bharara’s follow-up of the Moreland Commission investigation became public when his office recently issued subpoenas to Maziarz’s former staff members — Colatarci and the senator’s former office manager, Marcus Hall, both of whom resigned last week.
Moreland Commission investigators used subpoenas last year to sift bank records from the campaign accounts of Maziarz and 27 other senators whose campaigns had credit card or unitemized expenses that exceeded $10,000. Sources familiar with the findings, who are not authorized to comment publicly, said the information showed that large amounts of money were flowing from campaign accounts into the hands of elected officials, their staffers and campaign workers. In many instances, the money flowed from the campaign accounts through unitemized payments made from debit cards, ATM withdrawls and checks made out to “cash” with no explanation of where it was spent.
The campaign account of Sen. Gregory R. Ball, whose district includes Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties, was used to pay for travel outside New York including airline tickets, limousine services and hotels in Mexico, Florida and New Orleans, according to information shared with the Times Union. It’s unclear whether the trips were related to any government or political business, or, why the expenditures were not itemized with the state Board of Elections.
Ball, 36, who announced in May he would not seek re-election to a third term, declined to respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The transactions attributed to the Ball campaign account included a $500 cash withdraw at an ATM in Cancun, Mexico, and a $700 bill at a Hilton there.
When asked whether any staff members or campaign workers had received subpoenas from Bharara’s office, Ball’s spokesman, Joe Bachmeier, said in an email: “No. We have zero knowledge of what you are even suggesting. Period.”
Other than the probe of Maziarz’s campaign expenditures, the federal investigation also is examining the Moreland Commission’s findings that Senate campaign accounts were used to buy multiple vehicles, for personal meals, for tanning salon visits and to pay relatives who worked on campaign-related business.
None of the 28 senators whose campaign expenses were examined by the Moreland Commission had more unitemized expenditures than Maziarz. Information reviewed by the Times Union shows Maziarz’s committee failed to report more than $325,000 in expenditures between 2008 and January 2014. During that same period, the campaign wrote more than 300 checks to “cash,” including 73 checks totaling $29,430 that were never reported to the state Board of Elections.
In some instances, the campaign reported that the checks made out to cash were received by an individual Senate staff member or a specific campaign worker, but the check would then be endorsed by someone else. In many cases, the campaign never listed the final recipient of the money.
It’s unclear whether Maziarz knew about or sanctioned his campaign’s payments to the Endicott-based softball team on which his treasurer’s daughter plays. Maziarz did not respond to multiple requests for comment made through his spokesman, Matthew Nelligan, who has not returned multiple calls in more than a week.
Lou Bishop, manager of the elite youth softball team — known as TC Tremors — said the club does not solicit money for advertising. Bishop said he’s been the club’s manager for 20 years and that players raise their own funds — about $1,750 — to play on the team. He added that sponsors can request to have their name on a banner but said the club hasn’t produced a sponsorship banner in at least two years. He said Nicolette Jacobs, who was a high school standout in softball, has played for the club for about two years.
“Each individual player is in charge of coming up with the money,” Bishop said. “If we’re told to get a banner, we get a banner and we put it up but most people don’t care about the banner.”
Bishop could not recall receiving checks from the Maziarz campaign account. “I just endorse the checks and put them in the account,” he said.
Public filings at the state Board of Elections show the Maziarz senate campaign committee listed three payments to the TC Tremors softball team, totaling $910, but used different names each time: “TCT,” “TC Tremors,” and “Tremors.” Still, the filings may not reflect all payments from the senator’s campaign to the softball team. Other information obtained by the Times Union indicates the campaign paid at least $1,800 to the softball team since 2012.
Colatarci, who resigned as Maziarz’s chief of staff last week, received $91,378 from the campaign account through 219 payments, according to information shared with the Times Union by a person familiar with the investigation. There were also 64 payments totaling $14,168 from the Maziarz campaign account to Jacobs and members of her family, including her husband, Frank, and daughter, Taraneh Jacobs, who has worked as a Senate aide.
“Alisa has cooperated fully with the U.S. Attorney’s office, is not a target of the investigation, and will continue to assist as requested,” said Daniel J. French, who is Colatarci’s attorney and a former U.S. Attorney in New York’s Northern District.