Jul 19


Officials rebuke OTB over 11th hour contract extensions

Two elected officials of note chastise OTB over board vote that benefitted 18 executives. Meanwhile, Buffalo and Erie County appoint politically connected representatives to serve as directors.

Editor’s note: This story is a continuation of Investigative Post’s content sharing arrangement with the Niagara Gazette

Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick used one word to describe the contract extensions recently granted to 18 executives at the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation: “obscene.”

State Assembly Member Monica Wallace, who sponsored OTB reform legislation, termed the contract extensions “highly suspect.” 

The objections were triggered by an April 27 vote by the OTB board to give multi-year contract extensions to CEO and President Henry Wojtaszek and 17 members of his management team. The board acted just days before the state Legislature added language to the state budget to remove OTB’s directors in the name of what one lawmaker said was an attempt to clean up the agency’s “pervasive culture of corruption.”

In a related development, Erie County and the City of Buffalo have replaced their representatives on the OTB board.

Michelle Parmer-Garner has been replaced as Buffalo’s representative by Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, vice chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee. She recently joined the Roswell Park Cancer Institute as senior vice president and chief diversity officer. She previously served as Buffalo’s deputy mayor and Byron Brown’s chief of staff. 

Jennifer Hibit, who is the Democratic Committee’s secretary, has been named to replace Francis Warthling. Warthling was one of the OTB board members who voted in favor of the contract extensions.

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Hardwick has been pressing OTB for financial information for more than a year.

“Mr. Wojtaszek and others have repeatedly shunned my office’s requests for information, and there is a total lack of transparency when it comes to key issues that pertain to their highly paid appointees,” Hardwick said. 

“My hope is that the new makeup of the board of directors will help shed some much needed daylight on their operations.”

Wallace, D-Lancaster, expressed similar hope, saying she has “serious concerns” about the terms of the contracts and the timing of their approval. She noted that the employee agreements will collectively cost the state public benefit corporation $2.1 million in salaries alone.

“It’s clear the OTB board of directors did not prioritize the best interests of local taxpayers, who are supposed to benefit from OTB revenues,” Wallace said. 

“Under this contract, OTB President Henry Wojtaszek will earn $272,000 — triple what he made in 2011 and more than the salary of the vice president of the United States. He is just one of numerous OTB executives earning sweetheart, six-figure salaries on the public’s dime.”

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The responses from Hardwick and Wallace follow a July 10 report revealing the details of the contracts that was published by the Niagara Gazette, the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal and the newspapers’ media partner, Buffalo-based Investigative Post. 

OTB officials refused to voluntarily provide details of the contract extensions and instead required the Niagara Gazette to file a request for the documents under the state Freedom of Information Law.

Wojtaszek, citing what he described as OTB’s position that it does not comment on “personnel matters,” also refused to disclose whether any of the executives had existing employee contracts in place and or if the extensions involved pay raises.

Wojtaszek and OTB’s Director of Marketing Ryan Hasenauer did not respond to requests for comment this week. 

In defending the award of the contracts earlier this month, Wojtaszek said OTB officials “do not check the salaries of elected officials when making hiring decisions” and suggested the salaries and wages covered by the contracts are “consistent with the casino and hospitality industry and based on performance.” 

Wojtaszek also lauded the executives for their “exemplary work,” suggesting it has resulted in “consecutive years of record revenue,” including OTB’s “best week ever,” which he said happened over the July 4 holiday weekend. 

“What we can say is we are incredibly proud of the work done by our team,” Wojtaszek said. “From our OTB branch staff to our gaming facility employees, including senior leadership and board members, all are an integral part of our success.

Wojtaszek’s contract and similar deals for the 17 other executives were approved by OTB’s board on April 27, six days before they were ousted from their positions under language included in the state budget adopted May 2.

The dismissal of the board directors was part of a push by Democrats in Albany to address what state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, previously described as a “pervasive culture of corruption” at OTB.

Wallace questioned whether the previous board directors acted in “good faith” when they agreed to approve what she described as the “windfall” employee contracts on the same day they learned Albany lawmakers were preparing to change the board’s makeup and voting structure. 

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In addition to concerns about Wojtaszek’s pay, Wallace questioned the board’s decision to include in his contract a clause providing him with compensation for business-related vehicle mileage. She noted that a 2021 audit from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli flagged Wojtaszek for failing to reimburse OTB in a timely manner for personal use of an agency-issued vehicle.

“It is also absurd that the board gave Wojtaszek a gas allowance in light of his outright abuse of that privilege in the past,” Wallace said. “These egregious actions serve to confirm how critical it was for the state Legislature to step in and replace the existing board.”

In the wake of the state budget’s adoption, 11 of the 17 member communities that benefit from OTB’s operations, including Niagara County, have since reappointed their previous board directors. Genesee County replaced its representative, who stepped down amid the board changes, with retired county Judge Charles Zambito.  

Like Hardwick, Wallace encouraged new board directors to take a closer look at the deal approved prior to the previous board’s dismissal. 

“I urge the incoming board to consult with counsel on the validity of these last-minute sweetheart deals and to take all steps necessary and appropriate to challenge them,” she said.

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