Calls for OTB resignations
That’s the message Niagara County Democrats are sending to top officials at the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. after State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week faulted the organization for deficient oversight, poor leadership and shoddy record-keeping.
However, the audits did not address a controversial health insurance benefit OTB provides to certain officials and its board of directors. That’s been referred to the Attorney General’s Taxpayer Protection Bureau.
“They ought to take a look and see if there’s criminal activity here,” said Chris Borgatti, chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee. “It smells like it.”
The audits, released Thursday, confirm reporting by Investigative Post over the last three years. One audit covers a marketing program that offers OTB patrons a chance to win luxury suite seats to sports games and other events. State auditors determined that between 2017 and 2019, OTB officials helped themselves to at least 9 percent of tickets distributed, valued at $121,000. The tickets, at least 547 of them, includes Bills and Sabres tickets and concerts at the downtown hockey arena and football stadium in Orchard Park.
The other audit concerned a OTB-owned vehicle used by CEO Henry Wojtaszek, the former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee who remains influential in GOP circles. Wojatszek did not reimburse OTB for personal use of its vehicle for three years, the audit found. When he did write a check for $3,484 in April 2019, he turned the vehicle in, too. Wojatszek acted only after Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette inquired over his vehicle use.
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The Western Regional OTB, created by the state in 1973, operates 15 parlors, 30 betting kiosks in restaurants and bars, and a casino, hotel and harness racing track at Batavia Downs. Each year, it distributes profits to the 17 municipalities in Central and Western New York that own it, including Niagara and Erie Counties, and the City of Buffalo. That means any mismanagement comes at the expense of taxpayers, according to Democratic Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso.
“That’s public corruption of the worst sort, and you paid for it,” he said in a written statement.
Also critical was Legislator Anita Mullane, a Democrat from Lockport, who said Elliott Winter, Niagara’s representative on the OTB board, should resign along with Wojtaszek.
“They have allowed this climate to fester,” Mullane said in a statement.
Terrence Connors, who OTB hired as legal counsel to represent the board during an ongoing FBI inquiry, took issue with the referral to the Attorney General’s office. He contended that the comptroller’s decision blindsided OTB, which he said had repeatedly asked for additional guidance on the health insurance benefit.
Absent that guidance, OTB made the “good faith effort” and eliminated the perk for all future board members. That became effective in July.
Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for DiNapoli’s office, disputed Connors’s assertions.
“The Comptroller has repeatedly and clearly stated that the Western Regional OTB cannot provide health insurance to its board members,” Freeman told Investigative Post. “Instead of trying to protect this perk, the OTB should instead take immediate action to cease this practice and recover this money.”