OTB paying for an army of lawyers, lobbyists

OTB's bills for lawyers and lobbyists continue to climb, with attorney fees running as high as $450 an hour. That's money that otherwise would be distributed to local governments.

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. continues to spend big bucks – large amounts of public money, that is – on attorneys and lobbyists. 

Documents obtained by Investigative Post through a Freedom of Information request show OTB paid $333,684 to four Buffalo-based law firms between May 18, 2021, and April 1 of this year. 

The legal fees are in addition to the $16,500 per month OTB pays to Albany lobbyists currently under contract. 

What the lobbyists are doing for the money can be gleaned from documents on file with a state regulatory commission. But the bills submitted by two of OTB’s law firms – Connors, LLP and Hodgson Russ – did not include any specifics about the work performed. 

OTB hired noted Buffalo defense attorney Terry Connors in 2019 after a series of critical  stories by Investigative Post. Last fall, a pair of state audits confirmed that OTB officials improperly helped themselves to tickets paid for by the agency. Auditors also found CEO Henry Wojtaszek failed to properly account for personal use of his agency issued vehicle. In the wake of the audits’ release, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli called on the state-created public authority to “clean up its operation.” 

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Last year, Connors prepared a 380-page internal report that OTB officials said addressed allegations of misconduct and cleared Wojtaszek and others of any wrongdoing. OTB has refused repeated requests to release a copy of the report, arguing that it is protected from public disclosure due to “attorney-client privilege.” 

Invoices obtained by Investigative Post show OTB paid $49,935 to Connors, LLP between July 30, 2021, and March 24 of this year.

The law firm’s invoices are not itemized and are instead labeled “attorney-client privilege.” The distinction can, under limited circumstances, be asserted by public agencies as under state law.

In an interview with Investigative Post, Connors refused to discuss the nature of his firm’s work with OTB, saying only that he was asked to review activities that were the subject of media reports. 

When questioned whether his firm’s work involved a federal investigation into OTB’s activities, Connors said: “I don’t have knowledge of a federal probe that is occurring with respect to OTB.”  

A copy of a Sept. 30, 2021, agreement between Connors, LLP and OTB, which was obtained by Investigative Post through an FOI request, shows Connors’ firm spent at least part of its responding to a lawsuit filed by former state Senator George Maziarz last year. 

Maziarz sued OTB after the agency denied his request for various internal documents, including records from Wojtaszek’s agency issued cell phone. 

Connors’ firm charges between $275 and $425 per hour for attorney services and $125 per hour for paralegals.

Connors said he could not discuss the specific OTB invoices in question because he had not seen them. He described it as“standard practice”for itemized lists of services to be withheld when they contain “privileged” information. 

“The advice and the information that we provide to the public entity is protected by the attorney-client privilege, but the amount is discoverable,” he said.  

Paul Wolf, an attorney who serves as president of the government transparency advocacy group, the New York Coalition for Open Government, disagrees. 

Wolf said existing case law and opinions issued by the New York State Committee on Open Government have held that not all communications between client and counsel can be considered privileged. 

“Some things on their bill can be redacted, but not everything,” Wolf said.

Hodgson Russ has represented OTB on a different legal matter – a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2020 by the agency’s former chief operating officer, Mike Nolan. The lawsuit accuses Wojtaszek and board Chairman Richard Bianchi of retaliating against Nolan after he agreed to cooperate with state and federal agencies investigating OTB. 

Records show OTB paid $55,519.41 to Hodgson Russ between June 22, 2021, and March 21 of this year. The invoices include costs for services, but do not describe the nature of the services provided. 

Invoices filed by OTB’s two other law firms – Harris Beach and Shroder, Joseph & Associates – include some description of legal services rendered. 

Records show OTB paid Harris Beach $212,076 between May 18, 2021, and March 11 of this year. The largest payment – $144,388 made on July 13, 2021 – involved bond refinancing. 

The documents show the law firm also received $47,947.50 for work on OTB’s acquisition of The Hotel at Batavia Downs. OTB board members authorized the purchase of the hotel property for $8 million in February. 

Schroder, Joseph & Associates, a law firm that specializes in employee and labor matters, received $16,152 from OTB between Oct. 8, 2021 and March 24, documents show. 

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In addition to the legal help, OTB has assembled a team of lobbyists to represent its interests in Albany.  

In March, OTB’s board agreed to hire Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates – a firm led by a long-time associate of state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – under a four-month contract for $15,000 per month. 

The agency previously retained Upstate Strategic Advisors, a lobbying firm operated by former state Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, for $3,500 a month and Mercury Public Affairs for $8,000 per month. 

Reports filed with the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which oversees lobbying activities statewide, show lobbyists representing OTB have had contact with the offices of several high-ranking state officials, including Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers who serve on the Racing, Gaming and Wagering committees in the Senate and the Assembly. 

The lobbyists report representing OTB on a variety of matters relating to horse racing and gaming. They also show contact with state officials to discuss legislation proposed earlier this year by state Senator Tim Kennedy, a Democrat from Buffalo who has called for reforms that he says would correct the “perverse dysfunction” within OTB.

OTB is a public benefit corporation that manages Batavia Downs harness track and casino and off-track betting locations across western and central New York. It distributes its profits to 15 counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.