Fired OTB whistleblower claims retaliation

Second in command dismissed after what he says was harassment by OTB leaders after he disclosed his cooperation with federal and state investigators

The Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. has fired its second-in-command, a whistleblower assisting federal and state agencies investigating the organization.

Michael Nolan, OTB’s chief operating officer, was notified of his termination Dec. 18 when he showed up to work, according to his attorney, Steve Cohen. His dismissal is the culmination of two years of harassment Nolan suffered for cooperating with investigators, Cohen said. 

“Michael was in favor with everybody, and then, when he began answering questions honestly, as he is required to do, he was stepped on, he was squashed,” Cohen told Investigative Post.

Daniel Oliverio, an attorney who is representing OTB on the matter, disputed Cohen’s claims. Nolan’s dismissal, he said, was “no different than any other” executive termination.

“Frankly, OTB is sick and tired of hearing — from Steve Cohen and Mr. Nolan through the media — baseless allegations that are absolutely unsupportable about OTB, its board and its officers and directors,” he said. “We’ve had enough. We welcome them being in the legal process.” 

Cohen said the actions of OTB officials, including Nolan’s superiors CEO Henry Wojtaszek and Board Chairman Richard Bianchi, amount to “witness intimidation.” 

Cohen, on behalf of Nolan, served a notice of claim on OTB in October, the first step in a civil lawsuit that will seek at least $5 million in damages. According to those papers, Nolan was the target of a “relentless and malicious campaign of harassment” led by his superiors.

Nolan disclosed his meeting with investigators to Wojtazek and Bianchi in the spring of last year, Cohen said. Afterward, the pair “made it a living hell for him to continue to exist at OTB,” he said.

The notice of claim said Nolan was:

  • Forced to work weekends.
  • Denied a raise due to a poor performance review.
  • Removed from his roles as the organization’s purchasing officer and Freedom of Information Law officer.
  • Excluded from meetings and communications, as well as OTB social and community events he was once a part of.

In addition, Nolan said he abruptly lost his OTB benefits on Dec. 3.

“I found out my health insurance was canceled when my wife was at a doctor’s appointment for a broken hand for my 10-year-old daughter,” he told Investigative Post.

Nolan’s termination comes three years shy of the seniority benchmark required to collect a pension and lifetime health insurance. He’s spent almost a decade as OTB’s chief operating officer, overseeing its casino and harness racing track in Batavia, as well as 19 betting parlors across Western and Central New York, among other duties. He made $118,000 last year.

Prior to OTB, Nolan owned four Subway restaurants in Erie County. In 2003, he was elected Elma town supervisor. He resigned that post in 2011 to take the OTB job, but remains a member of the town board.

Nolan’s scope of cooperation with investigators is unclear. However, a Dec. 15 letter written by Corey Hogan, the partner and founder of Cohen’s firm, HoganWillig, provides previously unreported details about the federal and state investigations of OTB. 

There’s the ongoing FBI investigation, Hogan said, as well as inquiries by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the state Comptroller, the state Gaming Commission, as well as the Monroe County and the Niagara County District Attorney’s office. 

The letter said those agencies are reviewing a number of OTB operations previously reported on by Investigative Post, including: the award of contracts; the distribution of tickets to sports and entertainment events; the private use of OTB cell phones and vehicles; and the granting of costly health insurance to part-time board members. 

OTB is a state-created public benefit corporation owned by 17 county and city governments in Western and Central New York. A portion of its profits are distributed to those governments, which include the City of Buffalo and Erie and Niagara counties.

Events first came to a head at OTB early last year, Hogan said in his letter. That’s when Bianchi became aware of the indictment of a former state assemblyman, the late Joseph Errigo, who had worked for OTB. 

“Errigo had worn a wire for the FBI when Bianchi and Errigo had met on an earlier date,” Hogan said in his letter.

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The FBI’s interest in OTB extends beyond internal operations, Hogan’s letter said. Investigators have also questioned the appointment of “a politically connected board member who is also the ex-spouse of a former board member.” 

That’s former board member Maurice Garner, the letter said, and current board member Michelle Parmer-Garner, his ex-wife who now represents the City of Buffalo. 

“The investigation is of significance, as Mr. Garner is also being investigated in conjunction with the FBI’s parallel investigation into allegations of corruption and an alleged ‘pay-to-play’ scheme regarding certain contracts awarded by the City of Buffalo,” the letter said. 

Nolan said he has accrued significant legal costs over the last two years. His attorneys contend OTB must pay those costs under state law because the bills were accrued in the course of his duties as an officer at a public entity. Oliviero said Nolan’s attorneys misunderstand the law. 

Other legal fees related to the federal investigation of OTB have been covered by the organization. OTB’s board of directors hired criminal defense attorney Terry Connors last year to handle matters. He was paid $92,718 from April of 2019 through July of this year.

Connors produced a 380-page report in August addressing allegations of OTB’s wrongdoing. Bianchi has said the review “exonerates” Wojtaszek and the organization. OTB denied a Freedom of Information Law request for the report from Investigative Post, saying it was guarded by attorney-client privilege. 

Cohen said Nolan will continue to cooperate with investigators, but wants “justice” for himself from OTB.

“We’re going to see this through,” he said.