Two weeks ago I published a column about the corruption scandal at Western Region Off-Track Betting (OTB). This included new evidence uncovered in an audit by the New York State Comptroller. It is a story about people who occupy highly-paid public positions giving themselves expensive tickets to Bills games and Sabres games, and giving part-time board members expensive health and dental plans, all with the people’s money.
Some of my columns provoke more reaction than others and this one provoked a good deal. A prominent local businessman emailed me and wanted to know what regular citizens can do to make a difference. Others, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution, emailed me with insider details about OTB executives doling out thousands of dollars’ worth of freebies, like they were candy, all of it paid for with our money.
And a lot of people, especially on social media, just expressed exasperation that this kind of corruption has become a part of politics here and nothing is ever done.
It is time to end that public resignation to corruption. It is up to our Niagara County legislators to take action. And it is up to us, as citizens, to push them to do it. Here is how we do that.
The OTB is owned and overseen by 17 local governments, including Niagara County (its revenue is supposed to be used for public services, like roads and the sheriff’s department). The county has a representative on the OTB Board of Directors. Our county legislators need to act immediately to replace Niagara’s representative on the OTB board, Elliot Winter, with someone willing to start cleaning house. Legislators should also direct that replacement to introduce a board resolution to fire and replace the agency’s CEO, Henry Wojtaszek. Anything less will be a sign that corruption has a green light to continue.
To be clear, being against corruption is not a Democratic issue or Republican issue. It is not a conservative issue or a liberal one. Having clean government that does not steal from the people is an issue of democracy.
Niagara County is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with communities full of solid and hard-working people. How are we supposed to move forward on anything if we willingly tolerate blatant corruption like this right under our noses? It is like trying to build a house on a foundation full of cracks. And excusing corruption like this only encourages more of the same.
As a citizen I have asked my county legislator from Lockport, Anita Mullane, to help put a resolution for action before the Legislature at its meeting next week. And I am asking readers of this column, and others, to join me in signing an online citizen’s petition that calls on the legislature to act. You can find that petition at: www.change.org/EndOTBCorruption.
Again, this should not be a partisan issue. I realize that Mr. Winter and Mr. Wojtaszek have helped a number of people get elected to local offices here. But that does not obligate any of them to turn a blind eye to blatant corruption using the public’s money.
We should have no tolerance for those who put themselves in public positions and then think they have some sort of special entitlement to give themselves and their friends expensive luxury box seats and health care plans, paid for with public funds. No defense they decide to conjure up will negate the basic fact: they are taking the public’s money and acting as if it is their own. As I wrote two weeks ago, it is exactly the kind of corruption we see in third world countries, but with a close-up view of the Bills 50-yard line.
I understand most people feel that they are just too busy with their own lives — their jobs, their kids, their chores — to pay attention to how public officials spend our money. It is easy to just dismiss it all as "politics" and move on. But this time we can’t just look away. We need to come together as citizens and call on our legislators to act. And they need to understand that we will be keeping their actions on this scandal in mind when we cast our own vote in November.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.