Last week, the president and CEO of Western Regional Off-Track Betting instructed three of his top executives to ignore inquiries from the Erie County comptroller.
Erie County is one of the 17 municipalities that own OTB, an agency beset by allegations that it has misused public money. Since last summer, Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick has made numerous inquiries into the agency’s financial practices, including its provision of expensive health-care coverage to board members, its practice of doling out tickets to sporting events and concerts to friends and family, and the particulars of the development of a new hotel at Batavia Downs.
Over the past three months, Hardwick’s office has sent four letters requesting documents and answers to questions on these and other topics. According to Hardwick’s deputy, Tim Callan, OTB has provided “some answers” to two of those letters and ignored the others.
On Wednesday, Callan wrote OTB CEO Henry Wojtaszek and three other executives asking if they intended to respond to an Aug. 17 letter from the comptroller seeking particulars about a proposal to expand the new hotel.
We will not respond to this email or his previous letters. The letters are filled with loaded questions and are designed to harass & intimidate our organization. If they want legitimate information from our organization, they can FOIL the documents and we will comply.
The message clearly was intended for the three OTB executives on the email chain: Pauline Andrews, Wojtazsek’s executive secretary; Jackie Leach, chief financial officer; and marketing director Ryan Hasenauer, who is also OTB’s principal media liaison.
But Wojtaszek hit “reply all,” thus copying Callan on Wojtaszek’s instruction to snub the comptroller’s office unless it filed formal requests under that state’s Freedom on Information law.
“This lack of transparency makes me furious,” Hardwick told Investigative Post shortly after reading Wojtazsek’s instructions to his staff.
“My inquiries are designed to get legitimate information for the public that we represent.”
OTB manages betting parlors across Western New York, as well as a casino, hotel and harness 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. Thus, Erie County, the most populous of OTB’s owners, receives the biggest cut of the proceeds.
For the past five years, Investigative Post has reported dozens of stories about allegations that the agency has misused public funds, as well as the investigations, audits and lawsuits those allegations have spawned.
Last July, Hardwick became the first elected official among OTB’s owners to demand answers about the agency’s management practices and business dealings.
In the last year, Hardwick has sent letters asking Wojtaszek:
- Whether board members were still receiving health insurance, a benefit to which the state comptroller and attorney general said they were not entitled.
- For details about OTB’s sale of land to a group of prominent Buffalo-area businessmen for the development of a hotel — which the agency then bought at a substantial profit to the developers.
- About a recent contract for design plans to expand that hotel.
- For a copy of a consultant’s report examining and recommending changes to OTB’s operations and governance.
- For information about the board’s decision to pay Wojtaszek and other executives generous bonuses earlier this year.
- About multiyear contracts the OTB board awarded Wojtaszek and 17 other OTB executives in April, just days before the state Legislature adopted a reform package that ousted all 17 directors.
- For answers regarding unitemized revenue streams and marketing expenses identified in OTB’s 2022 audited financial statements.
“We’ve written a lot of letters to Western Regional OTB in the last year, made many inquiries,” Hardwick said. “And of late we haven’t got a lot of answers.”
OTB’s snub of the Erie County comptroller is part of a pattern of recalcitrance.
The agency’s officials, including Wojtaszek, routinely refuse interview requests and ignore emailed questions from Investigative Post and our partners at the Niagara Gazette.
After OTB officials refused to say whether the contracts awarded management employees in April were new or extensions, Investigative Post filed a FOI request seeking previous contracts, if they existed.
After 25 business days, the maximum allowable time under state law, OTB responded that it had no prior contracts to provide — an answer they could have given the day the question was posed.
OTB’s Wojtaszek and Hasenauer did not respond to a request for comment for this article.