A recently-appointed director of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.— expected to be a watchdog over the embattled gambling agency — has resigned.
State law prohibits public and political party officials from holding a license necessary to serve on the governing board of off-track betting corporations. That’s the law that prompted Jennifer Hibit — secretary of the Erie County Democratic Committee — to resign Monday from her position as Erie County’s representative on the board of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., based in Batavia.
It’s unclear if the law is being applied uniformly.
Former OTB Board Chairman Richard Bianchi, for example, served on the executive committee of the Monroe County Conservative Party during his tenure. Edward Morgan, Orleans County’s representative on the board, currently holds a seat on the county Legislature.
Similarly, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, the new appointee to the board from Buffalo, serves as a vice chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee, raising a question as to her eligibility. Rodriguez-Dabney did not immediately return a request for comment.
In a letter to New York State Gaming Commission Executive Director Robert Williams on Monday, Hibit cited state law in her letter of resignation.
“Considering the law prohibits me from serving as a board member as long as I am an officer and member of the Erie Democratic Committee, this letter serves as my resignation from the WROTB Board and also withdrawing my applications for NYS Gaming and Racing licenses,” Hibit wrote.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz appointed Hibit to the board over the summer after OTB reforms passed the state Legislature in May. That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tim Kennedy, fired the board of directors and assigned weighted voting, throwing control of the 17-member board to Buffalo, Rochester, Erie County and Monroe County, all controlled by Democrats.
Hibit replaced Francis Warthling. In Hibit’s place, Poloncarz has appointed Deputy County Comptroller Timothy Callan, according to spokesperson Peter Anderson.
Callan previously worked as the county’s deputy budget director before leaving that post in 2016 for a community development job in the Town of Tonawanda. Upon Hardwick’s election in 2021, Callan joined that office as second-in-command.
Like other OTB directors, Callan will need to apply for a state gaming license, so it’s not clear when he could join the board. OTB’s directors meet monthly over the course of two days.
Jessica Schuster, chief of staff to Hardwick, said Callan accepted Poloncarz’s appointment and has begun the process of applying for a state gaming license.
Neither OTB President and CEO Henry Wojtaszek nor an OTB spokesperson responded to a request for comment.
Under New York Racing Law, neither “public officers” nor “party officials” can hold gaming or racing licenses, which are needed to serve on the OTB board.
Callan previously served on the Town of Tonawanda Democratic Committee, but resigned Monday upon being appointed by Poloncarz, Schuster said. She said a legal review was underway to ensure that Callan’s position does not qualify him as a “public officer” under the racing law. Generally, only public officials who are in a position to regulate or tax gaming activities are prohibited from obtaining gaming licenses, according to the law.
In her application to the Gaming Commission in July, Hibit disclosed that she held a full-time job at the Erie County Water Authority and a volunteer position as secretary of the county Democratic party. No one from the Gaming Commission or OTB questioned the disclosure.
By October, the Commission had approved Hibit’s license and she attended the OTB meetings that month and in November. Hibit subsequently expressed a desire to see board meetings live-streamed to increase transparency and raised questions about who OTB was giving Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres tickets to as perks for gambling at the Batavia Downs Casino.
Not until Nov. 22 did Williams, the Gaming Commission’s executive director, question Hibit about her position with the Democratic Committee. He said the information had “recently come to [his] attention.”
“I presume that you resigned your position as a party officer with the Erie County Democratic Committee prior to your approval as a Western Board Member but would appreciate confirmation of same,” Williams wrote.
Hibit responded to Williams by resigning. In her letter, she questioned why no one had caught the conflict previously.
“I was unaware of [the conflict] and assumed if there was an issue with my application, it would have been identified by the Commission or my application would have been denied, and I would be told that prior to being seated as a Board Member,” Hibit wrote.
In a statement Monday, Gaming Commission spokesperson Lee Park said no one caught the conflict until recently.
“Unfortunately, neither the appointing authority (Erie County) or the appointing body (Western OTB) identified Ms. Hibit’s statutory conflict. Ms. Hibit herself also failed to identify the statutory prohibition” Park said. “The Commission, in reviewing Ms. Hibit’s license material, did not initially identify the conflict, but raised the matter with Ms. Hibit as soon as it was discovered.”
In a brief phone interview Monday, Hibit said she was surprised by Williams’ email and admitted she and Poloncarz had made an “oversight.” She said she was frustrated by the implication that she had hidden her position with the Democratic Committee.
“This is disingenuous and sounds like a way to cover their error and lack of review,” she said later in an email. “At no time was I contacted by anyone about any issues with my application or told of any concerns regarding my application.”
Anderson said Poloncarz shared her angst.
“The county executive is frustrated that the Gaming Commission failed to raise this issue earlier in the process, as Ms. Hibit’s application clearly stated her position within the Democratic Party,” Anderson said.
Schuster described the section of Racing Law that prohibits party officials and public officers from obtaining racing licenses as “rules that are frequently ignored.”
“I don’t think it’s a good law in practice. You could be a mega-donor and get one of these board seats,” she said. “Membership in a town or county party is not glorious.”
OTB is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation and two major lawsuits, one of which alleges abuse of public resources. The state comptroller has criticized OTB for numerous practices, including health insurance provided to board members and tickets to concerts and sporting events given to OTB executives and board members.