Spring cleaning can be a very good thing. It looks like that’s exactly what’s happening at the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.
It’s about time.
Language inserted in New York’s 2024 state budget has fired every commissioner of the public benefit corporation and outlined a new proportional voting process that gives board members representing larger entities – like Buffalo and Erie County – more votes than those from smaller, rural counties. The budget provision was sponsored by Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo and Assembly Member Monica Wallace of Lancaster, both Democrats. It responds to more than three years of disturbing reports about malfeasance at the OTB under CEO/President Henry Wojtaszek, including a state audit that found the following:
• Between 2017-2019, the OTB gave tickets and concessions worth at least $121,000 to board members, employees and other individuals
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• CEO and President Henry Wojtaszek, did not reimburse the organization for his personal use of an official vehicle in a timely manner.
• Overall, oversight of operations by the board of directors was lax, with board members and employees being given “generous perks and other benefits.”
There were also several items taken up by Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick, who made inquiries last summer regarding lavish health insurance benefits for board members, the murky details of the Batavia Downs hotel development and buyback deal, and excessive spending on lobbyists and outside lawyers.
Following Hardwick’s challenges, which never got an adequate response, the News Editorial Board endorsed Kennedy’s then-proposed legislation that would strip OTB employees of take-home vehicles, limit gifts to insiders at $15 and appoint a new board of directors to account for the size of the 15 Western New York counties that comprise the regional OTB.
Though the first two provisions are not included, Kennedy’s board recommendations did become state law and that alone ought to be sufficient to give the OTB the fresh start that it has needed for too long.
The assumption is that a new board will likely bring with it a new staff; here’s a case where such disruption is not only excusable, but necessary. Clearly, as long as the current board and CEO Wojtaszek felt they could sweet talk auditors with promises of improvement, real change was not coming to the OTB any time soon.
Even more brazenly, OTB evasions and slack record-keeping procedures continued in the face of investigations by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the State Gaming Commission – in addition to audits by the State Comptroller’s office. At least one of these probes, the FBI’s, is ongoing.
All this might not seem so important to the average Western New Yorker, but the Western Regional OTB brings a substantial amount of revenue to its 15 member counties and two cities; in 2022, $9.6 million – an agreed-upon portion of its profits – was distributed to the 17 governments.
Over roughly 20 years, the five remaining OTBs in New York State have seen a rapid decline in horse race betting, which had been their raison d’etre. Some have faced bankruptcy, unable to compete with all the other legal gambling options now available. New York City’s OTB closed down and the Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting is barely surviving.
Others have turned to video lottery terminal gaming. This has been very successful at Western Regional OTB’s Batavia Downs, which offers more than 900 video terminals as well as a hotel, concerts and live racing. It’s unlikely that the dozen betting parlors it still runs would have kept the agency as profitable.
With a new slate of directors and other fresh blood possible, it’s to be hoped that these profits will continue to flow, undiluted by financial improprieties.
Under the new system, municipalities with Democratic majorities will have more power. The representative of Erie County will have 24 votes, Monroe County 20, Buffalo 10, and Rochester eight. The remaining 13 counties will have a total of 33 votes. Such weighted voting ensures fair representation according to county and city population; it’s the same method used to distribute revenue.
This has led to the expected complaining from Republican legislators, but after decades of the OTB’s notoriety as a patronage pit for Republican political operatives, it’s difficult to take allegations of partisanship seriously now.
The time for reforming Western Regional OTB has finally come. Its future board members and staff should be put on notice, however, that close scrutiny of OTB operations will continue.
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