For the fourth time in 14 months, Niagara County has hired a politically connected Republican who had previously been accused of misconduct.
The latest GOP loyalist to be added to the payroll is Robert W. Welch, who resigned last summer as director of constituent relations for Republican state Sen. Rob Ortt after he was accused of using a racial slur during an encounter with a group of teenagers near his home.
Welch, a North Tonawanda resident, has been hired as a contract administrator at an annual salary of $62,991. The job has been vacant for three years and was not advertised, aside from a posting on the county’s website.
The hiring was criticized by Dennis Virtuoso, the county Legislature’s minority leader.
“If Senator Ortt didn’t think he had high enough standards to retain him, why is Niagara County hiring him?” the Niagara Falls Democrat said.
Welch, in an interview with Investigative Post, expressed regret for the incident and said his experience in document and data management, not his connections to the local GOP, helped him secure the contract administrator position.
“I feel I meet all of the criteria for the job and that’s why they hired me,” he said.
Republicans hold 10 of 15 seats in the county Legislature. All top administrative jobs, including the county manager and attorney, are held by Republicans. By coincidence or not, Republicans have been willing to overlook past transgressions of job applicants with ties to the party.
Consider these hires in addition to Welsh:
- In August, Republican County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski hired fellow Republican Matthew Parish as his deputy clerk days before the state Comptroller released an audit criticizing financial decisions Parish made while serving as North Tonawanda’s clerk-treasurer earlier that year. State auditors faulted Parish for “improperly” using $2.5 million in restricted cash from reserve funds, which depleted all of the city’s general fund reserves. In addition, auditors singled out Parish for transferring to the general fund, without Common Council approval, money earmarked for the water fund and planned capital projects. Parish got a raise from $55,000 to $72,335 in his move to the county clerk’s office.
- Last January, the county hired Glenn Aronow as senior employment and training coordinator at $53,762 a year. Aronow was fired in 2011 by then state Sen. George Maziarz after a female employee of the Senate majority leader’s office filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The state paid the accuser $90,000 to settle the lawsuit.
- In December 2019, the Legislature hired Kevin Schuler as county spokesman at an annual salary of $79,003. A GOP operative who worked for Louis P. Ciminelli, a longtime Republican power, Schuler pleaded guilty to felony corruption charges in May 2018 for his role in bid-rigging involving the construction of the Tesla plant in South Buffalo.
Schuler succeeded Douglas Hoover, who was disciplined in 2019 after he used the county’s email system to distribute a reelection campaign announcement for Legislator Keith McNall, a Lockport Republican. Hoover was cleared of criminal wrongdoing following a probe by then Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, whose husband, Henry, is the former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee. During the investigation, Hoover was transferred to a position in the county’s department of public works. He has since stepped down from that job.
Encounter with teen-agers
From 2010 to 2016, Welch served as an executive assistant to the mayor of North Tonawanda. Ortt served as mayor for four of those years, before being elected to the state Senate in 2014. Welch then joined Ortt’s Senate staff.
He resigned on June 15, 2020, one day after he was captured on cell phone video confronting four juveniles. At the time, North Tonawanda police investigators said they were considering charges in the case, although they later said none would be filed because the teens’ parents failed to complete the necessary paperwork.
In an interview with Investigative Post, Welch admitted that he became angry when he saw one of the four teenagers who were walking past his Spruce Street home damage a sign on his lawn supporting North Tonawanda police.
“I regret yelling at them and leaving the house and, basically, unfortunately, yelling at them for doing what they did,” he said. “It was just an emotional thing. It wasn’t my finest moment.”
He denied allegations that he used a racial slur referring to Hispanics and said footage from the encounter supports his claim, as did the outcome of the police investigation.
Following Welch’s departure from his senate office, Ortt issued a statement saying his aide failed to conduct himself in keeping with the “highest standards” of professionalism and conduct of the senator’s office.
Welch said he is now trying to put the incident behind him.
“I resigned from the senator’s office because my job was to support his work and not be a disruption to that and I own that.”
Seven candidates applied for the contract administrator position and three were determined to have met the qualifications. All three were interviewed.
Niagara County Manager Richard Updegrove, a former county legislator, said an internal applicant review committee unanimously agreed to appoint Welch on a provisional basis. The committee included Updegrove, Director of Human Resources Peter Lopes and First Assistant County Attorney Thomas Burgasser.
As a provisional hire, Welch must score in the top three on an upcoming civil service test to be considered for a permanent appointment. Schuler, the county spokesman, said the job description was sent to the state in January 2020 and the county expected a test to be scheduled for the position last fall. He said the county did not have a clear timeframe on the timing of an exam due to a backlog in state scheduling.
Updegrove said Welch was hired based on his experience with legal documents and contract databases, which he said he acquired during 16 years of service in the private sector, including 14 years as an assistant vice president with M&T Bank and two years with Washington Mutual bank. County officials refused to provide a copy of Welch’s resume, prompting Investigative Post to request a copy under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
Updegrove said he was aware of the incident involving Welch and the teens but stressed that no charges were filed. As a result, Updegrove said county officials could not legally consider the encounter. Specifically, he said, New York State Executive Law 296 prevents public and private entities from inquiring in any capacity about a “non-pending criminal case, arrest or accusation that ended in favor of the applicant.”
“The interview was conducted within those parameters,” Updegrove said.
Rich Andres, a county legislator representing North Tonawanda and chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee, told Investigative Post that said Welch was a “good fit” for the position. He denied the assertion that the county favors job candidates with GOP ties.
“We try to put the best people in the best possible spots,” he said.
Virtuoso disagreed and said the county should do more to promote diversity in hiring rather than continuing to employ “political hacks with questionable backgrounds.”
“It seems like we are hiring the worst of the worst,” he said. “They are recycling the same people over and over.”