(Editor's Note: Results of Tuesday's primary between the late Bill Nojay and Richard Milne were not available for the print edition of the Genesee Country Expres. Check dansvilleonline.com for updates)
ROCHESTER — The suicide of an assemblyman facing a primary on Tuesday has left Hornell and part of the region leaderless in the state assembly.
The City of Rochester Police Department reported Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford, took his own life with a gun in front of an officer who was responding to a call to check the welfare of someone on the grounds.
Nojay was 59.
Nojay served two terms, representing the 133rd Assembly District which includes the City of Hornell, Arkport, Plattsburgh, Cohocton and Wayland and the Town of Dansville in Steuben County, all of Livingston County and parts of Monroe County.
Rochester Police Department investigator Frank Camp said, "(Friday) at 9:22 a.m. the Rochester Police Department was called to Riverside Cemetery for the report of a check the welfare inside the cemetery. Upon arrival, the responding officer did observe an individual on the grounds shoot himself. The individual was pronounced dead at the scene by the office of the Monroe County medical examiner," he reported.
According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Nojay was also under federal investigation for funds that allegedly disappeared from an escrow account he was managing on a contract between a Rochester-based architect and the country of Jordan.
On Friday, the US Attorney’s Office based in Buffalo declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
“We have received multiple media inquiries regarding William Nojay. We are not in a position to release any information at this time,” said a statement from Barbara Burns, Public Affairs Officer for the Western District of the US Attorney’s Office.
Nojay had not been convicted of any crimes.
On Tuesday, Nojay’s name will still appear on the ballot in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Should he win posthumously, the three county GOP committees would appoint someone to take his place.
He faces Richard Milne, R-Honeoye Falls, who suspended his campaign for the time being. If Milne wins outright, he will secure a definite spot on the ballot.
“In light of the recent tragic death of NY State Assemblyman Bill Nojay I am suspending all political activity until further notice. While we have tried to stop some of the radio ads, this may not be possible but we are trying. As a candidate and more importantly as a person, I am devastated by today's events. My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and supporters of Assemblyman Nojay," Milne said in a statement.
Nojay was scheduled to accept the endorsement of the Hornell Republican Committee on Saturday morning at the Hornell VFW for his 133rd Assembly district seat; followed by a Turkey Shoot event hosted at the Conesus Sportsman’s Club in support of the second amendment.
Hornell Deputy Mayor and GOP Chairman John Buckley told The Spectator Friday afternoon that he felt “numb” upon hearing word of Nojay’s passing.
Robert Heineman, professor of political science emeritus at Alfred University, speculated that Milne could ultimately be the option Republican leaders from Monroe, Livingston and Steuben counties could go with should Nojay win Tuesday’s primary.
“I think it would just make sense to go ahead with Milne and let him fill the spot,” Heineman said. “It is amazing in these races. You find people putting their name in to run when you’re saying they really don’t have much of a chance. The next thing you know something like this happens, tragedy of one sort or another or a scandal. It’s just amazing.”
Heineman said he considered Nojay a great friend.
“I think it’s terrible,” he said. “The man had a lot of love for the community, a very bright guy. We’ve been friends for five, 10 years — closer to 10, maybe more. It’s just a terrible thing … I’m not quite certain what the cause of all this was but really quite shocked.”
The professor noted that Nojay’s legacy may be felt on stages big and small, ranging from the current battle for the Oval Office to his various business and community interests.
“He was one of the fellows who was pushing Donald Trump very heavily for the governorship a few years ago,” Heineman said. “He and a number of people from Hornell actually went out and met with Trump at Trump Tower and were very active in promoting him to run for the governorship … I think it helped activate Trump’s interest (in the presidency) so that’s certainly a contribution of sorts.
“Additionally he saw himself as a gadfly and somebody who’s willing to stand outside the normal political process and make comments about that he thought weren’t going right. I think that’s really where he played a pretty important role.”
Buckley considered Nojay to be a mentor of sorts as the two worked together and spoke at various functions through the years.
“I’m shocked, utterly shocked,” Buckley said. “I got a phone call this morning and a close friend of mine just broke the news to me. I was in disbelief. I absolutely could not believe my ears. After that my phone just started ringing off the hook nonstop. I guess I feel numb inside. It’s just one of those things you never expect. My heart goes out to Bill’s family … his wife, a very sweet, kind lady. I know he’s got three children and I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now.
“When I was first coming on the political scene I started out in radio. At the time Bill was doing his radio show and that’s how we became friends," Buckley continued. "We spoke at Tea Parties together and a lot of different events together. He was always a good friend and a mentor and I learned a lot from him. He was always a strong voice for conservatism upstate. It’s just a very, very sad day.”Despite the incident and reports of a federal investigation, Nojay remained a popular figure. An outpouring of condolence press releases were sent out by Republican lawmakers.
"We are incredibly shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Assemblyman Bill Nojay," said State Assemblyman Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua. "The Assembly Republican Conference has lost a true friend and today our collective hearts are broken. Bill was dedicated to improving New York and communities he served in the Rochester area. He will forever be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones during this tragic time."
Southern Tier Congressman Tom Reed, R-Corning, said "We are deeply saddened by the passing of New York State Assemblyman Bill Nojay. He was our friend. We will remember him for his dedication and commitment to public service and our community. Bill was a commendable leader. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Debra, and his three children. He will be deeply missed."
State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, said, “It is very tragic and sad to hear the news of Assemblyman Bill Nojay’s passing. It is difficult to imagine the grief his family and friends are experiencing, and our deepest condolences go out to them."
State Sen. Tom O'Mara, R-Elmira, said, “I am truly saddened to hear this terrible news of Bill’s passing. Our thoughts and prayers will remain with Bill’s wife, Debra, and his children. Bill was a dedicated, forceful and fully committed public servant, and he will be missed.”
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, said, “I am deeply saddened by the tragic news that Assemblyman Bill Nojay has died. He was a good friend and colleague. Bill was a strong voice for the interests of upstate and a dedicated advocate for those he served in the New York State Assembly. He will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, especially his wife Debra and their three children, at this very difficult time."
New York State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox also sent a statement saying, "We are incredibly saddened to learn of Bill Nojay's passing. Bill's deep beliefs in the Republican Party ideals of individual liberty and limited government made him a leading voice in our state where he helped inspire countless New Yorkers. He proudly served in the Assembly where he was never afraid to stand up and fight for those ideals. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife and daughters."
Nojay leaves behind a wife and three children.
During his time two terms in the State Assembly, Nojay showed a passion for fighting to expand funding and state program access for people with disabilities, opposing state budgets that proposed cuts. It also drove him to seek a seat on the unheralded, but personally important Assembly Mental Health Committee.
“My brother was developmentally disabled, so fighting for this group is a cause near and dear to my heart. Now that I’ve been appointed to the Assembly’s Mental Health Committee, I’ll be an even stronger advocate for the developmentally disabled,” said Nojay at the time of his appointment.
He also fought to advance the cause of the second amendment statewide, often railing against the state’s SAFE Act.
“It was drafted in haste, by bureaucrats who knew nothing about firearms, and crammed down on New Yorkers by a Governor who didn’t care what kind of havoc he was causing so long as he was praised by the anti-Second Amendment lobby in New York City,” he said in a previous statement.
However, most of the legislation he sponsored and co-sponsored dealt with easing regulations for school districts and small businesses, granting tax exemptions and other legal exceptions.
In his life outside of Politics Nojay practiced law, managed a corporate finance company, and hosted a regionally syndicated radio show known for espousing his unapologetic brand of conservatism.
The assemblyman had been embroiled in an investigation into his business practices in Cambodia, according to multiple reports by the Khmer Times. Investment fraud charges and a subsequent trial were pending in the Southeast Asian country, but Nojay steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.