Jul 9


OTB lawyer says buyouts A-OK

Attorney Terry Connors says buyout packages for three agency executives are permissible after a state lawmaker called them "blatantly illegal."

Henry Wojtaszek at a January OTB meeting. Photo by Garrett Looker.

An outside attorney representing Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. says the agency is not covered by a state law designed to prevent public authorities from offering so-called “golden parachutes” to outgoing executives.  

In a written opinion provided to members of OTB’s board on Friday, attorney Terry Connors argues that the state’s Severance Pay Limitation Act has no bearing on a June 27 decision by the agency’s board to authorize lucrative buyouts for three departing executives, including CEO and President Henry Wojtaszek. 

In his opinion, Connors argues that the act, which limits severance for non-union, “at-will” employees at some state public authorities to no more than three months’ pay, does not apply to OTB. 

The main thrust of his argument is that OTB was created under a different set of state laws than the ones covering public authorities as outlined under the language of the Severance Pay Limitation Act. He argued that the act limits severance pay for employees of public entities created under Chapter 43-a of the state’s consolidated laws, while noting OTB was created under the New York State Racing Pari-Mutuel Wagering and Breeding Law, Chapter 47-a of the consolidated laws – sections 502 and 507.

“WROTB is not organized under chapter 43-a of the consolidated laws referred to by the Severance Pay Limitation Act,” Connors wrote in his opinion. 

Both Bassett and Connors confirmed that the agency sought additional legal advice after state Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Buffalo, publicly questioned the legality of the buyouts, including one that will pay Wojtaszek a full year’s salary — $299,000 — when he leaves the agency’s top job at the end of the year. 

The agency’s board also authorized contractual buyouts for Vice President of Administration William White, who will receive half of his $175,000 salary when he leaves in spring 2025, and Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach, who will be paid half of her $244,000 salary as a severance when she departs her job in the spring. 

“When we came out with our severance packages, we knew we were on solid ground,” Bassett said. “Terry just really, in writing, kind of validated what we already know.” 

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Wallace sponsored the Severance Pay Limitation Act in 2018 after the Erie County Water Authority entered into a contract with a director that would have paid him $400,000 if he was forced out of his job for political reasons before the end of his term. The state legislature approved the act and it was signed into law in 2019 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

After the board’s June 27 vote, Wallace said she believed the severance deals for Wojtaszek, White and Leach violated both the spirit and the letter of the law and said she intended to ask the state attorney general to review their legality.

In an interview Monday with Investigative Post, Connors said it was “pretty clear” from the statute itself that it references entities created under a “certain chapter” of state law and that OTB was “not created under that chapter.” 

“When Assemblymember Wallace made her public statement that OTB was only permitted to provide limited severance payments to departing executives, OTB asked me to review the issue,” Connors said in a statement issued Monday. “While I have great respect for Assemblymember Wallace, our review suggests she was wrong and cited an inapplicable statute. Nevertheless, OTB will cooperate with any agency that wishes to review the severance payments.”

Wallace on Tuesday did not immediately offer a comment in response.

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Bassett denied the assertion that the buyouts for Wojtaszek and the two other executives represented “golden parachutes” and said the payment amounts involved were part of an ongoing effort by OTB representatives to ensure that the agency remains competitive in the regional gaming market. 

“We’re not comparing ourselves to government and legislative (salaries), we are comparing ourselves to the business community and we reward success,” he said.

Bassett echoed the long-held agency position that under Wojtaszek’s leadership and management since his arrival 15 years ago, the agency’s bottom line has improved and so have the returns to the 15 counties and two cities in Western and Central New York that share in OTB’s profits. 

“You’re not going to get good quality executives if you don’t reward them,” Bassett said. “We are looking for great ideas and great, talented people. I would think the municipalities would want us to be positioning ourselves to get the best, most-competitive leaders we can get.”

Mark Scheer reports for the Niagara Gazette, which occasionally collaborates with Investigative Post.

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