GOP County Majority Mom on OTB Hotel Bid | Local News
Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick pressures Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp officials. for more details on the public agency’s purchase of a hotel in Batavia.
Hardwick also questioned why the OTB continues to provide health insurance benefits to part-time board members, a practice that the New York State Comptroller and the New State Attorney General York have previously deemed inappropriate.
Members of the Republican-led Niagara County Legislature seem uninterested in following Hardwick’s lead on questions about the operation of the OTB.
Speaker of the Legislature Becky Wydysh, R-Lewiston, did not respond to questions about whether Niagara County should weigh in on OTB’s hotel purchase or on OTB’s health insurance practices. the agency.
Instead, she released a statement through the county’s public information officer, Kevin Schuler, on behalf of “all members of the majority,” in which she said Niagara County was working through its representative on the OTB Board of Directors, Eliot Winter.
Regarding the hotel deal, she said the State Comptroller’s Office and the New York State Gaming Commission “approved the purchase and financing of the hotel” and that, “so far, the purchase appears to have been very successful for WROTB and, by extension, the member counties.
“I expect that if there is any reason to question this purchase, these agencies would be the appropriate authority to review it,” Wydysh said in reference to the hotel near Batavia Downs that OTB bought in July 2021 for $7.5 million.
As first reported by the Buffalo-based outlet Investigative Post and its TV news partner, WGRZ, Hardwick sent a pair of letters earlier this month to OTB’s president and CEO, former Niagara County Republican Committee Chairman Henry Wojtaszek asking for more detailed information. on the hotel transaction and health insurance coverage for OTB board members.
In a letter dated July 15, Hardwick explained that OTB’s board authorized the sale of 35,000 square feet of property in Batavia Downs to a group of investors for $605,000 in 2015. The company d investment, ADK Hospitality, LLC, purchased the land for the purpose of building a hotel on site. Investigative Post reported that state records show the ADK formed a month before the land sale was approved.
Hardwick’s letter identifies ADK’s investors as: Anthony J. Baynes (former chairman of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority), Kent Frey (Frey Electric Construction), David McNamara (law firm Hodgson Russ and former Fiscal Stability Authority lawyer), Laszlo Mechtler (Dent Neurologic Institute) and James and John Basil (Basil family of car dealerships).
According to Hardwick’s letter, an 84-room, 50,000-square-foot hotel opened on the land in late October 2016. Hardwick, citing “various reports,” says ADK spent between $5 million and $5.5 million to build building. The project received $600,000 in public incentives under a tax-in-lieu agreement authorized by the Genesee County Economic Development Corp.
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, OTB’s Board of Directors approved the purchase of the hotel from ADK under a deal that was finalized last July.
The purchase price was $7.5 million, which Hardwick described as a “considerable markup.”
In his letter, Hardwick asked Wojtaszek why OTB would engage with an investment group that had never developed a hotel before. He also asked for detailed information on how OTB determined the sale price of the land, who initiated the deal and how much money OTB spent on the hotel rooms, before and after he got it. became the owner.
In a separate letter, dated July 18, Hardwick requested “information and clarification” about OTB’s continued practice of providing health, dental and vision benefits to agency board members.
The state attorney general and state comptroller’s office have issued opinions that OTB board members are not legally entitled to health insurance benefits. In addition, a private lawyer hired by OTB accepted these assessments.
In his letter, Hardwick asks Wojtaszek whether OTB intends to end health insurance benefits for current directors and whether directors will be eligible for benefits once they part ways with the company’s board. agency or will retire.
Niagara County Legislature Minority Caucus Leader Chris Robins, D-Niagara Falls, described the OTB’s ongoing practice of providing extensive state-funded health insurance coverage to members of the board who show up for one or two meetings a month in one word: “Shameful.
“No one on this board should receive this benefit,” Robins said. “For them to continue to receive it would be a borderline crime at this point.”
Robins also said that while Niagara County leaders don’t seem interested in looking into OTB, he’s glad that at least Erie County is looking into it.
“Counties are supposed to provide oversight for WROTB,” Robins said. “I’m happy to see Erie County do this, and I hope the state, along with other counties, will join us.”
In his statement, Wydysh said OTB’s private legal counsel, noted Buffalo defense attorney Terry Connors, is “still in discussion with the state attorney general’s office on the forfeit issue.” health insurance”.
Robins said he believes WROTB’s activities should be business-only and non-political.
“It can be a source of revenue for Niagara County, but I think it should be run like a business, not like a political party,” Robins said. “Right now, I think separating them would be good news for the counties.”
Established in 1973, OTB is a public benefit corporation that oversees the Batavia Downs harness racing track and casino as well as local OTB branches and EZ Bet locations in Western New York. Revenues generated by OTB are shared by the cities of Buffalo and Rochester and 15 counties, including Niagara County.
The agency has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, with the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli releasing a pair of audits last fall that encouraged the agency to “clean up its operation”.
State auditors reported to OTB officials that they had misused themselves to buy tickets for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabers and other events paid for by the agency. Additionally, auditors determined that OTB’s President and CEO, former Niagara County Republican Party Chairman Henry Wojtaszek, did not properly account for the personal use of the vehicle provided by his agency.
Wojtaszek and other OTB representatives have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.