Today’s report from our news partners at Investigative Post speaks volumes about the current state of affairs at Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. and how the people who run the corporation are failing the residents of Western New York.
The story, written by former Niagara Gazette reporter Phil Gambini, who started his investigation while a staff member, found that OTB spent more than $300,000 a year on suites to Sabres and Bills games and concerts and in the process ran up large tabs for food and drinks, including alcoholic beverages.
As the report noted, OTB, along with other Sabres suite holders, chose from a menu last season that charged up to $130 for a bottle of liquor, $40 for a six-pack of beer and $53 for a pizza. OTB, spending public money, dropped $85,690 for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 hockey seasons.
That’s on top of $332,500 spent to lease the suite for those two seasons.
In addition to the spending at KeyBank Center, OTB spent $192,240 to lease a suite at New Era Field for the 2017 and 2018 football seasons. Its tab for food and beverages was an additional $13,292, kept down thanks to a credit of $750 per game that comes with the lease.
OTB officials have maintained that tickets to sports and entertainment events are intended to reward players at its casino at Batavia Downs. But records suggest that was not always the case.
For example, OTB executives and board members were listed as receiving 35% of the tickets distributed to Bills home games in 2016. At a value of $525 each, those tickets were worth $23,625.
That’s not how this is supposed to work.
In reality, the proceeds from OTB operations are supposed to assist host communities across the Western New York area. Those host communities include Niagara County, a community where places like Lockport and Niagara Falls aren’t exactly flush with money to support public services.
The nightlife and weekend activities funded by OTB came at the expense of the 15 counties and two cities the corporation is designed to serve.
Is this the best policy for what is supposed to be a “public benefit” corporation?
Equally disturbing is the level of secrecy surrounding OTB operations.
OTB officials have refused to discuss the program in detail. CEO Henry Wojtaszek ignored repeated requests for an interview with Investigative Post. When quizzed at a press conference on an unrelated matter, he insisted the program was administered properly.
“The tickets are used for promotional purposes. They’re proper promotional purposes,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Wojtaszek described the money spent on food and beverages as “a normal amount of money,” attempting, incredibly, to argue that OTB’s spending is in line with “other corporations that use these suites.”
There’s just one problem: Other corporations are private and OTB is a public entity.
The distribution of tickets is among the issues being investigated by the FBI, the state Comptroller and the state Gaming Commission. A federal grand jury has been empaneled, as well. Also under examination: OTB providing costly health insurance to its part-time board members.
The scrutiny is warranted and will hopefully result in some real action and change.
OTB and its executives have proven themselves to be elusive in their responses to the ways in which they spend public dollars.
The profits derived from OTB operations should be used to support host communities like Niagara County, not to finance costly leisure-time activities like eating and drinking while attending football and hockey games.
Thousands of Western New York sports fans use their own hard-earned money to attend these sporting events and enjoy themselves while they are there.
Is it unreasonable to expect officials running a “public benefit” corporation to do the same?