Jul 20


GOP lawmakers to sue over OTB reforms

With Niagara County taking the lead, Republicans have hired former Attorney General Dennis Vacco in an effort to reverse reforms enacted in May by the state Legislature.

Dennis Vacco, the state’s former attorney general, has been hired by Niagara County and other Republican-led counties in Western New York to challenge reform measures enacted by the state Legislature in May that affect the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.

The changes removed OTB’s existing board and reconstituted its voting powers to shift control from rural to urban counties. Proponents said the changes were necessary to address corruption and cronyism; opponents characterized it as a power play by Democrats at the expense of Republicans. 

Kevin Schuler, Niagara County’s public information officer, confirmed this week that the county and “several other WROTB member counties” have “jointly retained” Vacco. The intention is to file a lawsuit aimed at overturning state budget language that mandated the immediate the removal of OTB’s 17 board members and the introduction of weighted voting based on population. 

Schuler refused to disclose the cost to the county for hiring Vacco and told the Niagara Gazette it would need to file a request under state’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain a copy of the retainer agreement with Vacco’s Buffalo-based law firm, Lippes Mathias LLP

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Vacco, a Republican, is a former Albany lobbyist who served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York from 1988 to 1993 and as state attorney general from 1995 to 1998.

Vacco did not respond to a request for comment. 

Republicans in the Niagara County Legislature agreed in June to hire outside legal counsel to sue the state on behalf of OTB, which is headed by former county GOP Chairman and long-time political insider Henry Wojtaszek. The vote authorized the county to “commence all necessary legal action” to prohibit the implementation and enforcement of state budget language..

Following the state Legislature’s actions, several prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney and state Sen. Minority Leader Rob Ortt, argued that the reforms were a “power grab” that benefited traditional urban Democratic strongholds at the expense of smaller, rural communities ruled by the GOP. 

Niagara County’s resolution authorizing the hiring of outside legal counsel, which was sponsored by Tony Nemi of Lockport, identified the state, the governor and the state Senate and Assembly as “potential defendants.”  The measure passed 10-3 along party lines.

Assistant Niagara County Attorney Katherine Alexander said the law firm hired for the legal challenge would investigate potential violation of home rule law, which grants local governments power over their own affairs, and the state Constitution. Members of the Genesee County Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee also agreed last month to pursue a similar-sounding lawsuit.

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OTB oversees the operation of gambling parlors and EZ Bet locations across Western and Central New York. OTB’s most lucrative draw is Batavia Downs, which includes a casino, hotel and harness racing track. Profits are shared with the state and 17 member municipal governments, including Niagara and Erie counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. 

Earlier this week, Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick and state Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, blasted the former board directors for authorizing multi-year employee contracts for 18 OTB executives, including Wojtaszek.

Said Wallace: “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.”

Hardwick described the salaries included in the contracts as “obscene” while Wallace characterized the timing of their approval — just six days before OTB board directors were removed — as “highly suspect.”

They called on incoming members of the revamped OTB board to review the contract extensions and the manner in which they were approved. 

“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.

Criticism over the employee contracts is just the latest for the embattled agency. In 2021, it was flagged by state auditors for distributing $121,000 worth of tickets to professional sports games, concerts and other events to OTB officials, board directors, family members and associates.

In addition, the state comptroller and state attorney general have challenged OTB’s practice of providing fully paid health insurance coverage to part-time board members.

In response to criticism, Wojtaszek and other OTB officials have said the organization has adopted policies to tighten up oversight of promotional tickets and put an end to health benefits for new board appointees.

Wojtaszek has also suggested that OTB executive salaries are in line with industry standards and appropriate in light of what he has said are “record profits” generated by the agency on behalf of its member communities. 

Wojtaszek acknowledged during a recent interview with the Gazette that OTB remains the subject of undisclosed investigations by federal and state authorities.

Investigative Post

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