More OTB reforms in state legislature

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace joins State Senator Tim Kennedy in the effort to clean up Western New York Off-Track Betting — an effort the state agency's leadership is fiercely opposing.

Another state lawmaker wants to cut the perks for Off-Track Betting officials in Western New York.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, has introduced legislation that would stop any OTB board member from receiving any benefits, including health insurance, not authorized under state law.

Her bill would also require regional OTB offices to file annual reports with the state gaming commission that itemize the purchase and use of any promotional item — including sporting event or concert tickets — valued at more than $50.

While the measures would cover all five regional OTB operations in New York, they are clearly targeted to address concerns identified within the operation of the OTB office serving the eight counties of Western New York.

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The offices of attorney general and state comptroller, in separate rulings, have both determined that OTB board members are not legally allowed to receive medical coverage through the agency. Despite the legal opinions, Western New York’s OTB office continues to provide board members with free health, vision and dental coverage. The practice cost the public benefit corporation $229,800 in 2017.

“These are taxpayer dollars,” Wallace said. “This is not a private entity. Every dollar that’s spent on operating money is one dollar less than the public gets. That’s why it’s egregious. This is like a misuse of taxpayer money.”

Last September, state auditors found managers and board members from Western Regional OTB improperly used tickets to luxury suites at sporting and music events at Highmark Stadium and Keybank Center. The state comptrollers’ office found the local OTB office spent $121,000 on tickets to sporting events, concerts, food and alcohol for board members, employees and other individuals without proper oversight as required under state law.

“You are using taxpayer dollars as a way to give tickets to your friends and family. That’s just wrong,” Wallace said. 

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Under Wallace’s bill, all regional OTB offices would be required to submit an annual report on their marketing programs to the state gaming commission. Her bill would require those reports to include the name and address of each person receiving tickets or any other item worth more than $50.

Auditors also found CEO Henry Wojtaszek failed to properly reimburse OTB for personal use of its vehicle for three years. When he did write a check for $3,484 in April 2019, he turned in the vehicle, too. Wojatszek acted only after Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette inquired over his vehicle use.

A provision of Wallace’s bill calls for any OTB board member seeking reimbursement for expenses to certify, under the penalty of perjury, that the expenses actually occurred.

“All participating New York municipalities will benefit from the increased transparency and accountability required by this legislation,” Wallace wrote in the memo accompanying her bill.

Wallace is the second state lawmaker to propose OTB reform measures in recent months. In January, state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, introduced three pieces of legislation aimed at changing OTB operations.

One of the bills would restructure Western New York’s OTB board based on population. The others would place restrictions on the use of OTB vehicles by agency personnel and impose a $15 cap on the value of items, including tickets to sporting events and concerts, that could be accepted by OTB board members.

Kennedy’s measures, which have all now been sponsored by the Assembly’s Majority Leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, are facing stiff opposition from lawmakers in several Western New York counties. So far, county legislatures  in Niagara, Genesee, Wyoming and Seneca have approved resolutions opposing changes in the board structure, which they say would greatly reduce the role of smaller counties in OTB’s operation.

Western Regional OTB is also stepping up its efforts to stop Kennedy’s bills from being approved in Albany. Last month, members of the local OTB board agreed to enter into a four-month contract at a cost of $15,000 per month with Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates, a lobbying firm that is headed by a close friend and former college roommate of current state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

The Jenkins firm joins OTB’s lobbying team which already included former state assemblyman Sam Hoyt and the Albany firm, Mercury Public Affairs.