LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature has mirrored its Erie County counterpart in making a formal demand that Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. turn over the names of those who have been given access to the luxury suites they rent from the Keybank Center and New Era Field.
Legislature Chairman Keith McNall’s letter was sent about a week after Erie Legislator Kevin Hardwick issued a similar communication. The lawmakers follow federal investigators who have convened a grand jury in Buffalo to probe the usage of OTB’s suites, among a variety of other matters.
The developments follow a series of reports from the Niagara Gazette and Investigative Post regarding the public benefit corporation.
The Oct. 2 letter from McNall, R-Lockport, was addressed to Henry Wojtaszek, the former Niagara County GOP Committee chairman, who was named OTB CEO in 2016. It requests the names of any and all suite users be turned over to the legislature.
“As you are well aware, there have been extensive conversations related to Western Region Off-Track Betting Corporation’s (WROTB) Suite Ticket Promotion Program, including allegations that tickets for Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres games, meant for OTB’s ‘high rollers,’ were utilized by OTB executives and board members,” the letter said.
When the option to sue OTB for the information was put to the legislature in May in a resolution submitted by the Democratic Minority, the four-person caucus were the only lawmakers to support it. The entirety of the Republican Majority present opposed it, including McNall.
Hardwick’s requests, which came after Erie County representative to OTB’s Board of Directors Beverly Mazur appeared before a committee group on Sept. 19., she said OTB does “have accurate records of everybody that enters those suites, of who they were,” but would not give it up.
The legislator’s requests of the public benefit corporation included it provide:
• An OTB staff attorney’s legal opinion on why the FOI law doesn’t apply to the individuals who utilized the suites.
• A list of OTB officials who hosted gatherings in the suites and any guests they may have brought to the event.
• A description of how the OTB advertised for its CEO position before naming Wojtaszek to the role.
Of the decision to press for the disclosure, Hardwick said: “It heightens suspicion when they resist.”
Hardwick’s colleagues shared in his desire for transparency. Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, a Republican, said he thought all the names in the record Mazur referenced should be made public.
“Aren’t they benefiting from taxpayer dollars?,” he said. “You’re a public benefit corporation, so shouldn’t those names be public?”
Hardwick said after verbally requesting the documents at a committee meeting and not hearing back, he issued the written request. He said legislature would allow OTB a few weeks to gather the materials.
McNall would not discuss his next steps if OTB decided to ignore the request. He said he expected Wojtaszek to capitulate. If not, a course of action “will be determined the,” he said.
McNall’s letter resulted from an exchange with former state Sen. George Maziarz, who has made public accusations the ticket program was abused by OTB officials who used it to benefit their friends, family and political allies.
Maziarz wrote to McNall on Sept. 12 and requested he call for a Board of Inquiry to be formed to vet the allegations against OTB.
Forming the board falls within the power of the legislature. Enacting it would require a resolution. If approved, lawmakers would assemble a six-person committee equipped with subpoena powers and the authority to oversee testimony from individuals concerning particular matters.
“Use of the subpoena powers to force OTB to disclose the items it has refused to release to the public – its real owners – would end the secrecy around the use of OTB resource and provide needed answers,” a Sept. 12 letter sent by Maziarz to McNall said.
Maziarz’s correspondence was answered five days later by County Attorney Claude Joerg. Joerg told Maziarz there is “no legal basis for your request,” citing a 1977 state Attorney General’s opinion relative to the Rockland County Legislature’s attempt to subpoena the Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.
The legislature has “no authority” to conduct such an investigation, the 42-year-old AG’s opinion said.
In addition to the legal precedent, Joerg said in his letter that OTB officials had already been questioned by Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. He went on to suggest the scrutiny was, at least in part, political.
“Despite such extensive public and often times partisan examination, no indication of any misconduct by members of the Western Regional off-Track Betting Corporation was revealed,” Joerg said.
On Sept. 22, Maziarz wrote back to McNall calling Joerg’s response an assemblage of “cherry-picked legal guidance” in an attempt to “shirk” oversight responsibilities.
Maziarz said that Erie County lawmakers were taking a more hard line in probing OTB while Niagara was “hiding behind ancient legal opinions that benefit OTB’s leadership.”
Virtuoso and McNall said Joerg was right in his opinion and another opinion would not be necessary. Maziarz said McNall was being misled to “protect wrongdoing” by OTB officials.