Updated on Thursday, May 12, at 5:25 p.m.
Former New York State Sen. George Maziarz wants a judge to order officials from Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. to reimburse taxpayers for benefits he says they improperly obtained while using the public agency as a “slush fund, an ATM [and] a piggy bank.”
OTB leaders, meanwhile, want Maziarz to shut up.
In a lawsuit filed Saturday in state Supreme Court in Erie County, Maziarz alleges that the misuse of public resources by OTB higher-ups has prevented the agency’s “massive revenues” from being “fairly distributed to the municipalities and taxpayers it serves.”
The former state senator followed up with a series of press conferences Thursday to publicize his lawsuit. One of them was in a parking lot across the street from the casino and harness track OTB operates in Batavia. Maziarz said two large trucks with OTB logos awaited him and began honking their horns when he spoke. They eventually drove circles around the press conference while continuing to honk, he said.
“They were going around and round, circling us, basically, blowing their horns. I would stop talking, they would stop. I would start talking again,” Maziarz said.
“I think it’s juvenile. I think its’ sophomoric. Clearly the executives at Western Region OTB do not want the word to get out.”
He said OTB’s actions amounted to “wasting money. The drivers of these trucks are on the public dime, they are working and doing this nonsense.”
OTB officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment to explain their actions. They did issue a statement addressing the legal action brought by Maziarz.
“This isn’t a lawsuit. It’s a publicity stunt,” the statement said in part. “The alleged claims are meritless and not even worth the paper they are printed on. Many of the allegations in the complaint are just simply false. And we welcome the opportunity to refute them when we respond to the complaint in court. We are confident the Court will dispose of them quickly.”
Formed as a public benefit corporation in 1973, OTB operates 12 branches, 26 E-Z Bet locations, a telephone wagering service and the harness racing track and casino in Batavia. Revenues generated by OTB are distributed to 15 Western New York counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
In his lawsuit, Maziarz, who represented parts of Niagara County in the state Senate for 20 years before leaving office in 2014, accuses CEO Henry Wojtaszek and the agency’s 16 board members of “knowingly” diverting OTB funds “from public use for unauthorized personal use.”
Wojtaszek is the former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Party and a one-time Maziarz protege. Their relationship turned bitter in 2017 after Wojtaszek pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor under an agreement with state prosecutors overseeing a probe into Maziarz’s campaign finances.
In his lawsuit, Maziarz cites a pair of state audits released last September that highlighted the misuse of public resources by OTB officials and recommended the agency “clean up its operation.”
Auditors for the state comptroller determined that Wojtaszek and OTB directors improperly helped themselves to tickets to Bills and Sabres games and concerts that were purchased with OTB funds as part of a promotional program.
They also faulted Wojtaszek for failing to properly account for personal use of his agency-assigned vehicle.
In his lawsuit, Maziarz cites earlier investigations conducted by Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette that documented many of the issues confirmed by state auditors, as well as OTB’s continued practice of providing part-time board members with premium health insurance.
The state Attorney General issued an opinion in 2008 that stated OTB board members are not entitled to health, dental and vision coverage. In 2019, lawyers from the law firm Barclay Damon reviewed the matter and recommended OTB directors no longer accept health insurance benefits.
An attorney for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli referred the matter to the office of Attorney General Letitia James seven months ago. Her office did not respond to repeated requests for an update from Investigative Post.
Maziarz is seeking damages for what the lawsuit describes as “past fraud” within OTB. His lawsuit specifically asks that Wojtaszek and all 16 OTB directors be ordered to repay “all sums unlawfully paid to them or misused by them.”
It also seeks the assessment of a civil penalty of $12,000 to each defendant plus three times the amount of all damages. The lawsuit recommends all repayments be distributed to the 15 counties and two cities served by OTB.
Maziarz is also seeking reimbursement for his attorneys’ fees and costs.
The lawsuit was filed on Maziarz’s behalf by Advocates for Justice, Chartered Attorneys, a New York City-based public interest law firm that provides pro bono or low-cost legal services, “representing regular, working people” to “give them a level playing field in the law.”
Nate McMurray, a Democrat who made three consecutive unsuccessful bids to secure the 27th Congressional District seat once occupied by Republican Chris Collins, is listed as one of the attorneys for the plaintiff.
Maziarz held a press conference Thursday morning in downtown Buffalo where he expressed “frustration” about the lack of progress on investigations into OTB activities by law enforcement, including the FBI.
Maziarz pointed to a case earlier this year in which Erie County District Attorney John Flynn charged three former public works employees with using vehicle inspection stickers designed for county use on their personal vehicles.
“That’s wrong,” Maziarz said. “The district attorney did the right thing there. That’s theft of public resources.”
He questioned how OTB officials’ helping themselves to event tickets and health insurance coverage deemed “impermissible” by the state comptroller hasn’t risen to a similar level of scrutiny.
“I hope my lawsuit is a signal for legislators and district attorneys in the western region to begin criminal investigations into the practice,” he said.
OTB officials have repeatedly dismissed allegations of misconduct as unfounded.
Last August, OTB directors lauded Wojtaszek for his work as head of the agency. Following a review of an internal report on operations prepared by attorney Terry Connors, who was hired by OTB, Board Chairman Richard Bianchi described Wojtaszek as “exonerated on all fronts.”
OTB has denied requests made under the state’s Freedom of Information Law for copies of the 380-page report prepared by Connors, claiming it is protected from public disclosure due to “attorney-client privilege.”
Wojtaszek has said the agency welcomed scrutiny from state auditors and has complied with recommendations for improving internal operations. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing while characterizing Maziarz as an “unhinged, vengeful and disgraced politician with an ax to grind.”
When asked if his criticisms of OTB were personal in nature, Maziarz on Thursday encouraged Western New Yorkers to look to other sources – including media reports and state audits – to determine whether his allegations have merit.
“I would say ‘Don’t listen to George Maziarz, listen to the New York state comptroller, listen to the attorney general. They say it’s wrong,’ ” Maziarz said.