For more than a decade, the state Gaming Commission allowed political party leaders — all Republicans or Conservatives — to serve on the board of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. in violation of state law, Investigative Post has found.
Then came Jennifer Hibit.
Following major reforms by state lawmakers, County Executive Mark Poloncarz last June appointed the Democratic insider to the OTB board. But late last year, the Gaming Commission gave Hibit a choice: Resign from her leadership position in the Erie County Democratic Committee or leave the OTB board.
She left OTB.
Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, a Democrat appointed by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown last year, and soon given a similar choice, chose to resign her position as party vice chair.
The forced resignations raised questions about whether there’s a double standard for the way Democrats and Republicans are treated.
In the weeks since, Investigative Post identified six other board members — all Republicans or Conservatives — who had held both OTB roles and party positions in violation of state law.
Investigative Post also identified a current OTB vice president who served as chairman of the Seneca County Conservative Party for decades. That person appears to have quietly resigned their party post in December.
The conflicts date to at least 2010, when CEO Henry Wojtaszek joined OTB as its general counsel. Wojtaszek became President and CEO in 2016.
“It is a GOP fiefdom and that’s what they keep it as: Their own political funhouse where they do what they want,” said Hibit. “And God forbid a Democrat got on the board that was going to work against them, and they attacked me for that.”
The OTB leaders who were in violation of state law include:
- Vice President of Administration William White, who, from 2003 until December served as the Chairman of the Seneca County Conservative Party. According to the Seneca County Board of Elections, White resigned his party position in December, in the wake of the Democrats’ resignations.
- Edward Morgan, a current board member from Orleans County, whose service on the board overlapped with his role as chairman of the Orleans County Republican Party from 2016 to 2018.
- Chief Operating Officer Scott Kiedrowski, who served on the board of directors between 2013 and 2016. He served as Chairman of the Niagara County Republican Party at the same time. He left the board for OTB leadership in 2016 when Wojtaszek became CEO.
- Richard Siebert, a former longtime board member who served until May 2023. He also served as Genesee County Republican Party Chairman from 2003 to 2023. His roles overlapped for at least a decade.
- Allan Hendrickson, who served on the board from 2016 through 2021 and was chairman and vice chairman of the Chautauqua County Republican Party during that time. Hendrickson died in 2022.
- Beverly Ann Mazur, who served on the board between 2013 and 2020. She was secretary of the Erie County Conservative Party during those same years. Mazur died in 2022.
- Philip Barnes, who service on the OTB board and as chairman of the Schuyler County Republican Party overlapped in 2016.
Barnes, like Hibit, questioned why the ban on party officers wasn’t enforced over the years, in an interview with Investigative Post. When his service on the board overlapped with his political position, no one from OTB or the Gaming Commission told him it was a problem, he said.
“If that was the case [with Hibit] then how come for 28 to 30 years they weren’t adhering to that same rule?” Barnes asked. “To me, it’s never been done right.”
Under state law, OTB board members and senior executives must hold gaming licenses, issued by the state Gaming Commission. To get a license, applicants cannot hold leadership positions in political parties or certain governmental jobs. State lawmakers, for example, can’t serve on an OTB board, just as the heads of political parties can’t.
In response to questioning by Investigative Post, a Gaming Commission spokesperson said the agency “erred in processing the Western Regional OTB Board members’ license applications.” He pinned the blame on OTB and the board members themselves. It’s the responsibility of the agency and its leadership to ensure conflicts don’t exist, spokesperson Lee Park said.
“Individuals with prohibited positions should not have been given licenses,” Park said. “We have addressed the matter internally to make sure this does not reoccur.”
In July, when Hibit applied for her gaming license, she disclosed both her government job. as director of human relations at the Erie County Water Authority and her party position. No one at OTB or the Gaming Commission flagged the conflict. Neither did Hibit or Poloncarz.
That changed in November after Robert Williams, executive director of the Gaming Commission, wrote to Hibit that her party position had “recently come to my attention.” In an email to Hibit, he made it clear she could hold the OTB position or the party position, but not both. He did not say how the information came to his attention.
Both Wojtaszek and Ryan Hasenauer, an OTB spokesperson, refused to answer questions for this story.
Issues with disclosure forms
The conflicts of interest on the OTB board have come to light following major reforms passed by the state Legislature last year. Those reforms, authored by state Sen. Tim Kennedy, fired the entire OTB board and implemented weighted voting, throwing control of the 17-seat board of directors to the more-populous Erie and Monroe counties as well as the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
Those reforms followed years of scrutiny over OTB spending, contracts and health insurance from reporters, the state Comptroller and New York Attorney General. The FBI has an ongoing investigation into agency practices.
Following Hibit’s resignation, Investigative Post requested disclosure forms for all OTB board members and staff on file with the Gaming Commission between 2010 and 2023 via the Freedom of Information Law. That request turned up 80 forms for 30 board and staff members filed over the course of the 14 years.
A review of those forms found that some senior staff and board members failed to file them at all. Park, the Gaming Commission spokesperson, said license holders are required to file disclosure forms when they apply for a gaming license. Among OTB leadership, only White, the Vice President of Administration, consistently filed disclosure forms.
Kiedrowksi, the chief operating officer, has only filed a single disclosure statement, in 2016, after he had served on the board for three years. The Gaming Commission did not turn over any disclosure forms for Wojtaszek.
The review also revealed that staff and board members failed to accurately disclose their conflicts of interest. Morgan, for example, never disclosed his party position. Siebert disclosed his role as GOP election commissioner for Genesee County, but not his role with the party. Others listed their role at OTB on the forms rather than their outside positions. Park said this was an error on their part. In a statement, he said Kiedrowski, Siebert and Barnes all failed to disclose their party positions.
When board members did reveal their party positions, no action was taken against them. White, Hendrickson and Mazur all, at one point or another, disclosed their political party roles but continued in their positions.
Commission says problem corrected
Park said the Gaming Commission, whose directors are appointed by the governor, has investigated the conflicts of interest on the OTB board and has taken steps to correct the problems.
Although the Commission’s licensing offices are responsible for assessing license applications and the disclosure forms, Park said the board members not filling out the disclosure forms properly made enforcement of the law difficult.
He argued that the Gaming Commission relies on accurate disclosure forms to properly enforce the law. Other than such self-reporting, he said, “the Commission has no direct manner of realizing whether a Western Regional OTB Board member, after applying, becomes a public or party officer.”
“The statutory language is clear, and it is incumbent on the nominating authority, the proposed member, and Western Regional OTB to take proper action to ensure that the proposed member, or approved members, remains in compliance with the law,” he continued.
Hibit said she worries that OTB’s leadership will find one reason or another to remove Callan from the board.
“Clearly,” she said. “if you’re not down for their way of business, if you’re not part of the crew, they’ll do anything they can to get you out and that’s what happened to me.”