Officials with Western Regional Off-Tracking Betting Corp. have a new promotional program in the works and it involves giving away $20 Tops gift cards to encourage people to stay at the public benefit corporation’s hotel in Batavia.
Members of OTB’s Advertising and Promotions Committee are scheduled to meet this afternoon to discuss a proposed resolution that calls for the expenditure of $50,000 in agency funds to purchase $20 Tops gift cards for the promotional program.
A copy of the resolution, which would need to be approved by the committee before it could be considered for final approval by OTB’s full board of directors, indicates that the gift cards would be used to promote the Hotel at Batavia Downs from July 2022 through December 2022. The item notes that the gift card giveaway would be used toward a promotion for the hotel to “encourage stays.”
OTB spokesperson Ryan Hasenhauer did not respond to questions from the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun & Journal newspapers about plans for the new promotional program.
Western Regional OTB is a public benefit corporation that is owned by Niagara County, 16 other counties in Western and Central New York and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. Revenue generated by OTB’s operation of the Batavia casino, racetrack and hotel and betting outlets across the region are distributed to participating local governments based on population.
The gift card promotion, if approved, would add another wrinkle to one of the most controversial areas of OTB’s operation in recent years.
OTB officials, including former Niagara County Republican Party Chairman and current agency President and CEO Henry Wojtaszek, have been criticized by the New York State Comptroller’s Office for their handling of other promotional programs, including the use of sporting event and concert tickets purchased with public money by OTB.
Last September, auditors from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found OTB officials spent at least $121,000 on tickets to sporting events, concerts, food and alcohol for board members, employees and other individuals without the oversight required by state rules.
The audit examined OTB’s marketing and promotional program — which included ticket giveaways for Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabers and Rochester Americans games — from September 2017 to December 2019. The goal of the program is to increase patronage and game play at OTB outlets, including Batavia Downs horse racing track and casino. During the audit period, the comptroller’s office found OTB spent nearly $1.3 million on leases for suites at sporting venues, concert tickets and food and beverages.
State auditors also found OTB officials failed to keep accurate records of who received tickets and gave tickets and concessions with a value of at least $121,000 to board members, employees and other individuals. The average ticket cost, including the amount spent on concessions, was $221, according to the comptroller’s office.
In unveiling the audit findings, DiNapoli encouraged OTB officials to “clean up its operations” by tightening oversight and eliminating questionable spending.
OTB representatives have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Wojtaszek, in an interview last week with WGRZ Channel 2 in Buffalo, said OTB has taken steps to comply with recommendations contained in the comptroller’s audit. Specifically, Wojtaszek said the public benefit corporation has improved its record-keeping and hired an outside compliance company, Core Compliance — a Buffalo firm headed by former FBI agent Paul Moskal — to provide advice on improving its operations. In keeping with Moskal’s recommendations, Wojtaszek said OTB has discontinued its practice of allowing agency representatives and guests to attend sporting and other events as “hosts” and will now only allow one OTB “host” to attend games, concerts and events that are part of OTB’s promotional efforts.
“His recommendation was to just have one person as a host to make sure everything’s in order there,” Wojtaszek said. “We followed his advice. That’s what we do now.”
Following the release of the comptroller’s audit, a pair of state lawmakers — Assemblyman Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, introduced legislation aimed at reforming OTB’s operations.
Kennedy proposed a trio of bills, including one that would have held OTB board directors to the standards of the state’s Public Officers Law, which bars state employees from receiving gifts valued at more than $15. Kennedy also submitted legislation that would have changed the composition of OTB’s board, reducing the total number of seats to 15 while increasing representation for Erie County and the region’s most populous counties. Kennedy’s third piece of legislation would have prohibited OTB-owned cars or trucks from being used as take-home vehicles.
Wallace introduced bills that would have any OTB board member from receiving benefits, including health insurance, not authorized under state law. A separate piece of legislation she proposed called for requirements that all OTB regional offices, including the Western New York office, file annual reports with the state gaming commission that included an itemized list of the use of any promotional item valued at more than $50. It would also require OTB regional offices to have its promotional plans approved by the gaming commission each year.
Records on file with the state show firms retained by OTB at the public’s expense had contact with Albany lawmakers and representatives of the state’s gaming commission about the proposed pieces of reform legislation which ultimately failed to secure approval by the state Legislature.
Wallace said she intends to resubmit her legislation for consideration when the state legislature resumes session next year because she still believes more oversight is needed at Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.
When it comes to promotional efforts supported with public dollars, Wallace said OTB officials should be keeping better track of the money spent and who is ultimately benefiting from promotional items like sporting event and concert tickets or even gift cards.
She also said she’d like to have a clearer understanding of how the cost of these promotions benefit OTB and its partners in municipal government if they return any benefits at all.
“What’s the return on the investment for those perks?” she said. “There’s no analysis on the return on the investment for those perks. We don’t know that the taxpayers are getting any benefit from that.”