With local politics beginning to focus particularly on the upcoming races for Erie County Executive and the Buffalo Common Council some public issues have fallen off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate because there are subjects that deserve more attention. For example, OTB.
The Western New York Off-Track Betting Corporation (WROTBC) has been in existence for approximately fifty years. The original intentions were to put a crimp in illegal betting on horse races while also providing a new revenue source for the member governments of the WROTBC. There are 15 counties participating along with the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
Over the years the organization has operated many local betting parlors throughout the member counties. The parlors were good for employment often related to political parties, but over time they became a financial drag on the organizations and led to diminished funding sent to member counties and cities. Many parlors have been closed but all of the remaining parlors lose money.
Over the years WROTC got into other gambling activities. Online horse gambling became profitable. The state allowed OTB organizations in the state to set up casinos of a sort, that offered some of the amenities of full-blown gambling operation (slot machines, restaurants, entertainment), but lacked table games provided in Native American-run casinos and others that the state has permitted. WROTBC bought the Batavia Downs harness racing track, subsequently opening up the casino there.
WROTBC authorized the private development of a hotel on the grounds of Batavia Downs, but more recently it was sold to the WROTBC.
Over time the operations of the system have attracted the scrutiny of various investigators including the state Comptroller and the FBI. WROTBC has spent millions of dollars employing lawyers and lobbyists to deflect the investigations. The state Gaming Commission has had little to say about the system.
Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick is trying to shed light on what has been happening. Mostly the leadership of WROTBC has dodged and weaved, offering up little information and trying their best to avoid being called to task. On February 3, 2023 Hardwick sent a letter to the CEO of the organization, Henry Wojtaszek, and their Board Chairman, Richard Bianchi, seeking answers to previously posed but mostly ignored questions. Among the issues the Comptroller raised were the following:
- Details relating to WROTBC’s purchase of the hotel at Batavia Downs from the original developers, such as the valuation of the land that the hotel sat on and the sale price that substantially exceeded what the hotel cost the developers to build and furnish originally; looking for information on how the deal was financed.
- The availability and cost of health, dental, and vision care provided to current and retired part-time Board members of the organization. The state Attorney General issued an opinion in 2008 to another OTB organization advising that OTBs are not permitted to provide health insurance to board members. For the past four years WROTBC has stalled and dodged on the question, claiming that one of their contracted attorneys was negotiating with the AG about the issue. The organization has failed to provide any information about those negotiations.
- Most publicly created corporations, authorities, and other public agencies in New York State provide no compensation to their board members. WROTBC pays their directors $4,000 each per year. The directors are also reimbursed for their expenses such as mileage. Free stays at the hotel at Batavia Downs have been made available.
- Since 2014 WROTBC has paid ten different Albany lobbyists more than $1.3 million in fees. The results of the lobbying efforts have not been identified.
- There has been reporting from time-to-time about how and why WROTBC manages the use of luxury boxes that they lease at Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres games, as well as concerts and other public events. Staff and board members have used the perks as well. There has been no accounting about how such marketing activities are financially beneficial to the organization and its members.
Commenting on these issues, Comptroller Hardwick tells Politics and Other Stuff that “my office has been looking into a number of concerns at WROTB since summer 2022. After we sent multiple letters and emails, WROTB hosted us at a meeting at Batavia Downs on October 5, 2022 and pledged to answer our questions and be transparent concerning their operations.
“However, since that time, despite repeated emails and letters from me and my staff, and promises by WROTB’s chief executive officer to cooperate, WROTB has not provided full, or in some instances, any answers to our questions regarding their hotel, their health insurance for directors and retired directors, and their spending on outside lobbyists and attorneys.
“As chief financial and auditing officer of Erie County, and because Erie County is a co-owner of WROTB, I will continue to pursue accountability and transparency by WROTB’s management and board of directors.”
Going forward, the question that needs to be asked is, does the relatively limited funding distributed to member counties and cities justify the organization’s continued operations, at least in its present form? New York City’s much larger Off-Track-Betting system was shut down 13 years ago.
State Senator Tim Kennedy and Assemblywoman Monica Wallace a couple years ago proposed legislation to clean up and re-organize the operations of WROTBC. To date nothing has come of that legislation. The lobbyists’ impact is felt, but it has been a negative impact preventing reforms from being imposed. Reforms may also be stifled by whatever interests some of the member counties have in continuing things just as they are.
What we have with WROTBC is a 50-year-old institution that operates as it pleases, paying limited attention when poked, but otherwise ignoring those who have asked questions or conducted investigations. Public interest has taken second place to maintaining the status quo at an organization that has forgotten why it was created in the first place.