Oct 26


OTB lurches toward ‘new era’

OTB's new board president promised at a meeting Thursday the beleagured agency would be more transparent going forward. Afterward, OTB's president refused to talk to a reporter about why Buffalo's new representative wasn't permitted to vote.

The Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. is entering a “new era,” its new board chair has claimed, a shift that could see the public gambling agency increase transparency and institute reforms.

The OTB board of directors meeting Thursday marked the first time the group had met since state lawmakers in May fired the old board, ordered the 17 counties and cities that own the agency to appoint a new one, and instituted weighted voting, throwing control to densely populated, Democratically-controlled Erie and Monroe counties, along with Buffalo and Rochester.

Those reforms came after more than four years of lawsuits, investigations and reporting from Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette on numerous irregularities. 

Investigative Post revealed, for example, that OTB board members received rich health care coverage and attended Buffalo Bills and Sabres games on the agency’s dime. Both the state comptroller and attorney general have said board members should not receive healthcare, and the comptroller faulted OTB’s handling of free tickets to sporting events and concerts. 

An FBI investigation, probing the agency’s awarding contracts to politically connected firms, is ongoing. So are two lawsuits from former OTB executive Michael Nolan, one of which alleges the agency “improperly used” its funds for perks and contracts. Investigative Post reported last week that OTB has spent $2.2 million in recent years on numerous lawyers, lobbyists and consultants to advise it through its struggles. It’s so far paid three firms to assess whether or not its issuing of healthcare to board members is legal.

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Reaching a quorum for the first time since its April meeting — where the old board approved lucrative contracts for OTB leadership, something it had never done previously — the new board took its first action: selecting Rochester representative Dennis Bassett to serve as its temporary chair. 

The Democrat taking the board’s reins is significant: Before the legislature’s May reforms, 13 Republican-dominated counties controlled the OTB board. Now, the four Democratic strongholds have 62 out of 99 total votes. While leaders across Western New York reappointed fired board members to their former positions, Erie, Monroe and Schuyler counties, along with Buffalo, selected new  representatives. Bassett will serve as chair at least through November. Board members could select a new chair in December and possibly again in January, when board chair elections are typically held.

“We’re going into a new era,” Bassett, a holdover from the old board, said during the meeting.

That new era could bring increased transparency, including live-streamed board meetings. That was a request Jennifer Hibit, Erie County’s new representative, made. Henry Wojtaszek, OTB’s president and CEO, said the board room was not equipped for live-streaming but that the agency would look into establishing those capabilities. 

And Bassett suggested that he and the new board would pressure OTB’s management to fulfill Freedom of Information Law requests in a timely fashion — something it has not done previously

“We can’t spend business time trying to cover our derriere,” Bassett said. “When you request something, we should be willing to give it to you.”

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Bassett also acknowledged OTB’s past controversies and said he expects the new board to institute additional reforms. New board members, for example, are barred from receiving agency healthcare, though long-time board members, including Bassett, have kept their existing plans.

“We’ve seen some honest procedural mistakes,” he told reporters afterward. “And we should be held accountable for that. I’d like to say we did everything perfectly, but we haven’t. … I think we, with good intention, we made mistakes. … [T]he new blood, I think, is exciting. I think it’s good.” 

Regarding the ongoing FBI investigation, Bassett expressed confidence that the agency would emerge with few bruises.

“[The FBI] hasn’t finished their work, but we feel very confident that we have done all the things correctly that we’re supposed to do,” he said. “Let them continue to investigate, but we feel that we that light at the end of the tunnel is not a train coming at us.”

Thursday’s meeting was not without hitches. While Hibit attended and was able to vote, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney — Buffalo’s new appointee — was not. 

It’s not clear why. 

In an Oct. 12 letter to Wojtaszek, the New York State Gaming Commission wrote that it had “approved Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation’s request to amend its plan of operation to reflect the appointment of Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney to the Western OTB Board of Directors.”

The letter did, however, note that the “approval does not constitute a licensing action for any licenses that Ms. Rodriguez-Dabney may require.”

Still, on Wednesday, Gaming Commission spokesperson Brad Maione confirmed that Rodriguez-Dabney “is indeed approved and able to participate in OTB board business.” Maione explained that the “caveat language” meant only that Rodriguez-Dabney was not licensed to “own, race or train a horse or otherwise work in New York’s horse racing industry.”

“This individual’s role alone — board member of WROTB — does not require occupational licensure,” he said.

On Thursday, though, Scott Kiedrowski, OTB’s vice president of operations, stated that “Rodriguez-Dabney is not licensed, unfortunately” and was therefore not permitted to vote. 

That meant Rodriguez-Dabney, though present, could not vote for or against Bassett’s appointment to chair, nor could she vote up or down on the sale of two shuttered OTB branch locations, one in Rochester and one in Oswego County.

The board, without her, voted to sell the shuttered Rochester branch for $500,000 to Michael J. Cerone and the Oswego County branch for $750,000 to CM Family Trust.

Maione suggested OTB leadership had erred in preventing Rodriguez-Dabney from voting. 

“As we clarified on Wednesday, the individual does not need to be licensed by the Commission to participate on the WROTB Board,” he said.

After the board meeting, Investigative Post waited outside of Wojtaszek’s office for an hour, to ask him why Rodriguez-Dabney was not permitted to vote at the meeting. When neither he nor agency spokesperson Ryan Hasenauer emerged to speak with a reporter, Investigative Post left contact information and a request for a phone call with their receptionist. A reporter also emailed Hasenauer seeking comment. Neither he nor Wojtasek responded by the time of publication.

Rodriguez-Dabney did not respond to a request for comment.

Some OTB observers said they will be watching to see if the new board does in fact institute reforms. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who appointed Hibit — his longtime former chief of staff — “looks forward to hearing more about what will take place at future meetings of the Western Regional OTB’s board of directors,” spokesperson Dan Meyer said. 

And Antonella Rotolio, who represents OTB workers for the United Public Service Employees Union, said she hopes for a “better working relationship with the corporation.” She said OTB employees were particularly concerned with the closure and sale of betting branches. She added that she’s enthusiastic about the possibility of OTB board meetings being live-streamed. 

“The public can hold them accountable, and so can the employees,” she said. “I think it’s very important because the money is for the counties, and it’s taxpayers money. We need to know why it’s such a secret.”

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