The Erie County Legislature has appointed a prolific Democratic donor as its representative to the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.
Francis Warthling was approved in a unanimous vote Thursday to replace Beverly Mazur, who served in the role for ten years. His appointment follows nearly 18 months of controversy at OTB, including ongoing federal and state investigations.
Despite allegations of wrongdoing, no OTB board members have questioned CEO Henry Wojtaszek during meetings or otherwise criticized operations publicly. That is part of the reason the Legislature chose to replace Mazur, a former Conservative Party official with Republican ties.
Warthling said he will raise issues that have not been publicly discussed by the board, including their deluxe health, dental and vision insurance package and the use of sports and concert tickets handed out by OTB as part of a promotional program.
“Those were some of the questions that came up during the interview and I will bring those questions when I’m on the board,” he told Investigative Post.
Warthling said legislators want more transparency from OTB. He intends to regularly brief lawmakers on OTB operations and developments, he said.
OTB, a public benefit corporation created by the state Legislature in 1973, operates a casino and harness racing track in Batavia and betting parlors throughout western and central New York. Its profits are distributed to 15 counties, including Erie and Niagara, and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. Erie County received $860,687 from OTB in 2019. Buffalo received $341,896 and Niagara County $278,003.
Warthling, 53, is vice president of Diamond Cutters of Western New York. He owns 100 apartment units and his family formerly owned Curly’s, a popular restaurant in Lackawanna.
He was a commissioner with the Erie County Water Authority from 2006 to 2014. The three-member board, which also serves as the pleasure of the Legislature, came in for strong criticism during his tenure for patronage hiring, among other issues. Warthling also served as a City of Lackawanna Democratic Committee chairman from 2001 to 2015.
He has been a major campaign contributor, almost exclusively to Democrats. Since 2000, he’s made 385 contributions totaling $122,788, according to records maintained by the state Board of Elections. His donations since 2015 come to $32,195.
Warthling donated $51,000 to the Erie County Democratic Committee over the past 20 years. Nineteen of the 20 largest checks he’s written have gone to the party. The other went to its chairman, Jeremy Zellner.
His contributions over the years total $7,700 to Poloncarz, $6,742 to Democratic State Sen. Tim Kennedy and $5,050 to Zellner.
Warthling said the contributions played no role in his appointment.
“I’ve always donated,” he said. “If I didn’t get this position I would continue donating the way I do, that’s just my belief.”
GOP Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo and Legislator Kevin Hardwick, a Democrat, were among those on the Government Affairs Committee who interviewed candidates. Lorigo did not take issue with Warthling’s nomination or his contribution history, which was “news” to him, he said.
Hardwick said Warthling’s contributions were not discussed during the interview process. There were three candidates, including Mazur. He said the public will have to judge Warthling by his “performance.”
“What we’re looking for first and foremost is not a patronage appointee, but someone who will go in and look out for the interests of people in Erie County and hopefully dig into all the allegations that have been made,” Hardwick said.
The OTB board next meets Aug. 26-27. Warthling said he will not accept OTB health insurance, the legality of which has been repeatedly questioned. The job also carries a stipend of up to $4,000 a year.
Poloncarz last week called on OTB representatives to appear before the Legislature to answer questions regarding their receipt of $3.2 million in federal funds under the Payroll Protection Program and the subsequent indefinite furlough of 300 employees. Poloncarz described OTB as a GOP “patronage dumping ground” and called on officials to answer questions about the program’s expenditures in public.
Legislators will not be inviting OTB representatives to appear before them, despite Poloncarz’s suggestion. Instead, Hardwick, in a July 20 letter to Wojtaszek. requested detailed answers to a series of questions regarding the funds, including whether it was expended on board members’ insurance,
“When Beverly Mazur … appeared before this body twice in the past 10 months at our request, she assured the Erie County Legislature that WROTB would operate transparently and she, or WROTB management, would report on developments to this body,” Hardwick said in his letter to Wojtaszek. “However, we have never received any communication from you or Ms. Mazur about these furloughs, nor your solicitation and receipt and use of PPP funds.”