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Outrages & Insights / Bad bet

Investigations of the OTB are reaching the federal level



 

Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.

 


 

If I had to describe the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation in a word, it would be “brazen.”

 

Maybe because they’ve operated in the shadows for so long, the leadership of the OTB must think they’re bulletproof. Or that they can wait out the scrutiny they find themselves under. Or perhaps they’re just that arrogant.

 

A quick primer on OTB. It’s a state entity—a public benefit corporation—charged with running gambling operations in Western and Central New York. It loses money on most of its operations, including betting parlors and betting kiosks in bars and restaurants, but makes up for the losses with revenues from the casino it operates; it’s tough to lose money on a casino, right? OTB’s profits are divvied up among fifteen counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.

 

I’ve been reporting on OTB since November and it’s been an exercise in “catch us if you can.” There’s been a lot to catch.

 

Board members have been helping themselves to free gold-plated health, dental, and vision insurance at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, dollars that might otherwise flow to the aforementioned county and city governments. When I pointed out to Henry Wojtaszek, OTB’s president and CEO, that the state Attorney General ruled a decade ago that such insurance was verboten for OTBs, Wojtaszek claimed he was unaware of the legal opinion. (Yeah, right.) He promised to solicit another opinion from the AG, but instead hired a private attorney who provided an opinion that (surprise!) concluded the insurance was permissible. The OTB board then hired another attorney to get a second opinion, which practically laughed the initial assessment out of the room. The AG and state comptroller also chimed in, in essence saying the board needed to surrender its coverage. Wojtaszek responded by saying the board would take up the issue, but months have gone by without the matter being raised.

 

All the while, Wojtaszek was driving around in an OTB-issued car while failing, for seventeen months, to reimburse OTB for personal mileage. This wasn’t just a few miles, but more than 28,000, which he eventually wrote a check to cover after Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette started asking questions. Wojtaszek then turned the car in altogether, along with a cell phone OTB was also paying for.

 

I reported the FBI was investigating OTB on suspicion it was awarding lucrative contracts to politically connected vendors, including Growth Marketing Group, whose Republican operative owner is supposedly chums with OTB Chairman Richard Bianchi. What did OTB board do in response? Renew its contract with Growth Marketing. I kid you not.

 

And how about the time Wojtaszek told Niagara County legislators that OTB had provided reporters with documents requested under the state Freedom of Information Law? Trouble was, the two reporters—Phil Gambini of the Niagara Gazette and me—were in the room and neither one of us had, in fact, received the documents. We confronted Wojtaszek outside the meeting and he agreed to set the record straight. Instead, he told legislators that the Gazette had received the documents. Brazen, you think?

 

Finally, there is OTB’s disdain for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). On more than one occasion, OTB has refused to provide documents that the state Committee on Open Government said reporters had a right to. Officials went so far as to contend OTB doesn’t have to fully comply with FOIA and that perhaps OTB isn’t even a public entity. That’s a curious position to take, given that OTB employees draw a state pension when they retire. Also curious in the face of OTB’s self-professed commitment to transparency is its consistent stonewalling of record requests and dodging of interview requests. I suspect none of this is going to end well for OTB. The FBI is investigating. The state comptroller is auditing. The state Gaming Commission has finally roused from its slumber. 

 

Wojtaszek and company haven’t succeeded in fooling reporters; I can only imagine how poorly they’ll fare in dealing with people with subpoena powers. I mean, being brazen only goes so far, which, in the case of OTB, isn’t far at all.

 

 

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