How an investigation led to sex trafficking charges, legislator's arrest in Steuben County

Anthony Borrelli
Elmira Star-Gazette

In the primarily rural Steuben and Chemung counties of New York’s Southern Tier, a sex trafficking enterprise allegedly operated in secret for five years.

Steuben County’s District Attorney says this is “not the type of case we expect” in this community. The names of two known community figures with starkly different backgrounds emerge at the center of it: A notorious criminal, Larry Comfort Sr., who was linked to a state police investigator’s fatal shooting, and a sitting county legislator, Steven P. Maio.

Few specifics have been revealed publicly about how the sex trafficking operated or how many alleged victims it involved. But the 34-count criminal indictment alleges five men are linked together by a set of felony charges that entail drugs, witness intimidation, profiting from prostitution and enterprise corruption.

Comfort Sr., 70, is portrayed by prosecutors as the leading figure in the criminal operation, an investigation built by New York State Police that led to the indictment’s unsealing in December. No stranger to the criminal justice system, he'd been prosecuted in the 1980 shooting death of a state police investigator in Corning. 

Maio, 55, is a Democrat Steuben County legislator representing Corning and an attorney who has remained on his elected post since the charges surfaced. But he’s been removed from legislative committees while the court case unfolds. His defense lawyer maintains his innocence and has described the charges against him — felony counts of forgery and enterprise corruption — as “false and defamatory.”

The indictment charges Comfort Sr., Maio and three others — Larry J. Comfort Jr., of Elmira Heights; Jonathan F. Hamilton, of Elmira; Michael L. Stratton, of the Town of Corning — as accomplices in the sex trafficking case.

For over a year, police chipped away at the investigation, shedding light on a criminal enterprise that allegedly stretched back to December 2015.

Prostitution with drugs, witness intimidation revealed

When New York State Police received a tip about a suspected sex trafficking ring in Steuben County, they spent hundreds of hours performing surveillance and interviewing witnesses, aiming to piece together a case that would muster enough evidence for a grand jury.

Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker said in December that sex trafficking operations like this one are “supposed to be urban problems.”

Larry Comfort Sr.

While the scope is something prosecutors haven’t disclosed, the indictment breaks down the type of criminal acts investigators say helped keep the sex trafficking operation aloft for years.

Drugs like cocaine were involved, the indictment claims, used in some instances to impair the judgment of a prostitution customer. Comfort Sr. and Stratton are also accused of providing a person with a narcotic drug in order to profit from prostitution.

While it's unclear from the indictment how many people were engaging in prostitution, at least one adult woman emerges as an alleged victim. Comfort Sr. is accused of using force to compel her to engage in prostitution by instilling fear that if his demand wasn't complied with, he'd injure or kill her.

As the investigation began to take shape, the indictment claims, Comfort Sr. was part of a conspiracy to have a witness in the case killed. He’s also accused of trying to induce that witness to avoid testifying before the grand jury.

Sex trafficking suspect went to prison after investigator's shooting

New York State Police investigators check the crime scene at a Corning car wash in 1980 where investigator Robert Van Hall and investigator William Gorenflo were ambushed while inside the vehicle on the left. Van Hall died, and Gorenflo was severely injured. Brothers Joseph and Larry Comfort were convicted in the shooting.

Comfort Sr. and his brother Joseph gained notoriety in the Twin Tiers in December 1980, when they were charged in connection with the fatal shooting of New York State Police investigator Robert Van Hall and wounding of his partner during an ambush at a car wash in the City of Corning.

Both men were originally convicted of murder, but Larry Comfort Sr.'s conviction was later overturned. A conviction on drug charges against him was upheld and he was paroled in 2013. Joseph Comfort died in prison in January 2019.

Legislator’s arrest hinted at larger investigation

The first glimpse of law enforcement's investigation emerged in August when Maio was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of patronizing a prostitute, a charge that wasn't included in the grand jury's later indictment.

Police revealed no further details of the prostitution charge at the time, but Maio's lawyer Matthew Buzzetti has argued the August arrest was actually "a setup by the police department to gain leverage over my client," so Maio would disclose information he allegedly didn't possess. 

Steven Maio

Maio had been appointed in May 2015 to fill a vacancy on the county legislature and was later elected as a Democrat that fall in a narrow win. He also served as a member of the Corning City Council, representing the First District.

In the sex trafficking case, prosecutors accuse him of being a participant in the enterprise corruption, that he allegedly engaged in a course of criminal conduct to advance its aims.

A complicated case like this one could be an example of how prosecutors attempt to apply the federal RICO statute — it provides for extended criminal penalties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization — at the state level, said Carl Bornstein, an adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His legal career also includes serving as a federal and state prosecutor.

"The participant is liable for the acts of his co-conspirators and the accomplices, and can be penalized more severely," Bornstein said. In a conspiracy case, prosecutors would be looking for what's known as an "overt act," meaning someone took a meaningful step in furtherance of the criminal agreement.

"The difficulty in these cases is that, for example, someone supports this (criminal) activity because there's a piece of the action that flows in sooner or later, but his activity standing alone might not be criminal," Bornstein said. "It may be perfectly innocent activity, unless you put it into the context of a broader criminal scheme."

Maio and Comfort Sr. are also accused, as part of the criminal enterprise, of falsely completing a power of attorney document in September 2019. The indictment doesn't provide further details, which led Buzzetti to question its validity since there are no further claims of money laundering or falsifying bank records to go with it.

"We must keep that in mind that, unless and until a jury votes otherwise, an innocent man’s family relationships, client relationships and legal practice, and seat as a county Legislator are being unfairly attacked and harmed," Buzzetti said.

How the charges affect Steuben County politics 

Steuben County Legislature Chairman Scott Van Etten said Maio has been removed from any roles on legislative committees for 2021 since the indictment was handed up, but he still has the ability to vote on Legislature business.

"Until he’s convicted, he’s innocent and while it may be an embarrassment — and I don’t think it helps the image of the Legislature itself if a fellow member is arrested — he can continue in his role until the trial occurs," said Van Etten, a Republican.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Steuben County's Republican party has called for Maio's resignation.

While resignation is up to the elected official, New York state law spells out a few things that can lead to removal from office. One of them is "conviction of a felony, or a crime involving a violation of (the) oath of office."

There is also a process in public officers law by which a county's district attorney or any citizen of a municipality may petition the supreme court to remove an elected official "for any misconduct, maladministration, malfeasance or malversation in office."

Although that hasn't happened following Maio's arrest and indictment, county Democrats have also questioned whether he should continue serving as a Legislator.

"I think it becomes more of a question of ‘is he effective," Van Etten said, "and is he able to represent his constituents from the City of Corning,' and that’s his call or decision and the constituents’ call."

Plotting the next steps in court

At the earliest, it's expected to take a year for a trial to be held in the sex trafficking case.

When the indictment was handed up in December, all five suspects —  Maio, Comfort Sr., Comfort Jr., Hamilton and Stratton —  were taken into custody by state troopers on warrants issued.

Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker

Maio was released on his own recognizance pending further court action and Stratton, the only suspect not charged with enterprise corruption, was also released. The other three men have been sent to the Steuben County jail without bail to await their next court appearances.

Convictions for the sex trafficking and enterprise corruption charges could bring stiff prison terms of up to 25 years.

Baker, the District Attorney, has said the investigation remains a continuing endeavor for law enforcement officials.

"This is not the type of case we expect in places like Steuben and Chemung counties," Baker said after the indictment was unsealed. "This investigation proves that simply isn't the case, that it can happen anywhere, even in our own communities."

More:Steuben County legislator, four others indicted on sex trafficking charges

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