Six days before being ousted this spring by the state legislature, Western Regional Off-Track Betting’s board of directors voted to give multi-year contracts to 18 of the agency’s top executives.
News outlets, including Investigative Post, first reported that the contracts for CEO Henry Wojtaszek and his lieutenants were “extensions” of existing agreements. But they were not extensions, according to OTB’s response to a Freedom of Information request filed by Investigative Post in July, seeking copies of the executives’ previous contracts.
OTB said it had no previous contracts to provide.
“There were never any contracts at Western Regional Off-Track Betting,” Michael Nolan, OTB’s chief operating officer from 2011 to 2020, told Investigative Post.
Nolan told Investigative Post when he and other OTB executives sought contracts from the board in the past, they were told contracts were “against company policy.”
Thus, the outgoing board sought to lock into place a team, led by Wojtaszek, whose management has been subject to scathing audits by the state comptroller, investigations by the state attorney general and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lawsuits alleging malfeasance and a complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming discrimination.
The ongoing, years-long scrutiny of OTB led two Western New York legislators — state Senator Tim Kennedy and Assembly Member Monica Wallace — to champion reform measures that were incorporated into state budget legislation adopted May 2. Their legislation immediately dismissed OTB’s entire board, which comprises appointees from the 15 counties and two cities that own the agency.
OTB manages betting parlors across Western New York, as well as a casino, hotel and horse racing track at Batavia Downs in Genesee County. The agency splits its profits among the municipal governments that own it, with each government’s share determined by its population.
Kennedy and Wallace’s reform measures also assigned weighted voting to board members, based on the population of the municipalities they represent.
That change shifts control of the board along partisan lines — from directors appointed by Republican-led governments in rural counties to directors appointed by Democratic-led governments in more populous Erie and Monroe counties, as well as the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
A week before those transformations were adopted by the state legislature, the soon-to-be-dismissed board approved the new contracts for Wojtaszek, a former chair of the Niagara County Republican Committee, and 17 of his top aides.
The new contracts were first reported by the Niagara Gazette and Investigative Post, working in partnership.
Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick has been sparring with Wojtaszek and the OTB board since last summer, when he launched a series of inquiries into the agency’s financial practices. When Hardwick read of the contracts awarded to the executive team, he sent two letters to Wojtaszek — one in June and a followup in August — seeking, among other documents and data, copies of the new contracts, previous contracts and information about the board’s decision to award “contract extensions” to top executives.
Hardwick’s office said OTB sent copies of the new contracts, but no previous contracts, and little else. For Wojtaszek and a handful of other top executives, the deals extend to 2026, with two-year renewal options, according to the comptroller. For others, the deals extend to 2025 with one-year renewal options.
Earlier this summer, Hardwick described the board’s decision to award contracts to Wojtaszek and his team, a week before the board would be dissolved, as “obscene.”
In July, Investigative Post filed Freedom of Information requests with OTB seeking previous employment contracts for Wojtaszek and his management team, as well as compensation for all OTB employees over the past five years.
In response to the request for previous contracts, OTB wrote, “There are no records responsive to your request.”
This comports with what Nolan, OTB’s former chief operating officer, told Investigative Post: The agency’s executives never had contracts.
In an interview with the Niagara Gazette in June, Wojtaszek defended the new contracts, and his management of OTB. He said OTB has increased the amount of profits it returns to the municipalities that own it by millions of dollars in recent years. He also said OTB has made changes in its policies and practices in keeping with recommendations from the state comptroller’s critical audits.
OTB did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Wallace, who with Kennedy pushed the changes to OTB governance through the legislature, said she was “not surprised to learn … lucrative contracts given to OTB executives by the previous board were unprecedented.”
“These facts only serve to support our decision to replace the previous board with one that will be more responsive and accountable to the public,” Wallace said in a statement emailed to Investigative Post.
“I urge the new board to fully investigate this matter and to take all steps they deem necessary and in the public interest, including voiding the contracts if appropriate.”
Republican-led legislatures in six counties — Niagara, Orleans, Wyoming, Livingston, Seneca and Genesee — have vowed to fight the changes in OTB governance championed by Wallace and Kennedy, according to The Batavian.
Those county legislatures have committed retainers of $5,000 each to hire the law firm of Lippes Matthias to challenge the legislation in court, using taxpayer funds. Dennis Vacco, a Republican former attorney general and US Attorney, will be the lead attorney in that effort.