Friday, March 1, 2024

Buffalo Mayor Brown sets sights on Batavia Downs leadership job

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Henry Wojtaszek, the gambling agency’s current boss, is said to be contemplating a run for mayor of North Tonawanda. His contract with OTB includes a golden parachute that assures him of more than a half-million dollars in continued pay if he leaves.


By Geoff Kelly and J. Dale Shoemaker

From left: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, OTB President and CEO Henry Wojtaszek, OTB board member James Wilmot.


Mayor Byron Brown, who has pursued at least two jobs outside City Hall in the past six months, has his eyes set on yet another: president and CEO of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., sources tell Investigative Post.

And those political insiders say the job’s current occupant, Henry Wojtaszek, is looking for an exit strategy, too. 

It’s little wonder that Brown would be interested in the job. Wojtaszek has one of the best-compensated public service posts in the state.

The OTB president and CEO has a new three-year contract worth $287,000 per year, plus health insurance and retirement benefits. He has access to free Bills and Sabres tickets, as well as tickets to concerts at Highmark Stadium, KeyBank Arena, and other venues. 

The workplace, Batavia Downs, is fun, too: a casino and harness-racing track coupled with a hotel serviced by bars and restaurants.

A half dozen sources have told Investigative Post that Brown is interested in succeeding Wojtaszek. One source claimed to have heard about the idea from Brown himself. Others said they had been party to those discussions or heard about the plan from those who were.

Wojtaszek, who has been employed by OTB since 2010, appears to be looking for a new job, too. In recent months he has told fellow Republicans he intends to run for mayor of North Tonawanda, where he resides, in 2025.



Chris Borgatti, chair of the Niagara County Democratic Party, has heard the speculation.

“I suspect he’s preparing an exit strategy from OTB since the walls are closing in,” Borgatti told Investigative Post. 

North Tonawanda Mayor Austin Tylec told Investigative Post he hoped Wojtaszek wasn’t looking at the mayor’s office as his next stop.

“This isn’t a retirement gig and it shouldn’t be treated as such, so whoever is planning on running should take it seriously,” Tylec said.

As for Brown, he might have competition for Wojtaszek’s job. A former OTB official told Investigative Post that current OTB board member James Wilmot is also interested in the post.

Brown’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Wojtaszek.

After this story was published, Brown appeared on WGRZ’s 5:30 p.m. newscast. Anchor Claudine Ewing asked the mayor about the OTB job. He neither confirmed nor denied his interest.

“It seems like every big job that comes up on Buffalo or Western New York, my name gets attached to it,” Brown said.

Writing on the wall

Wojtaszek, an attorney, is a former chair of the Niagara County Republican Party. He served six years as city attorney for North Tonawanda. His wife, Caroline Wojtaszek, is a state Supreme Court judge.

He joined OTB as general counsel in 2010 and became president and CEO in 2016.

Until last year, OTB’s 17-member board was dominated by directors appointed by the Republican-controlled governments of largely rural counties. 


Henry Wojtaszek, left, during a January OTB meeting. Photo by Garrett Looker.


Those directors defended Wojtaszek’s management, even as the agency became mired in allegations of malfeasance and subject to critical audits and investigations by state and federal authorities.

Then, last May, state Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo and Assembly Member Monica Wallace of Lancaster, both Democrats, attached a measure to the state budget legislation that forced changes to OTB’s governance. The measure introduced a weighted voting system, whereby board members from more populous municipalities would have more voting power than those representing more sparsely populated counties.

The change had the effect of shifting control of the board to appointees from Erie and Monroe counties, plus the cities of Rochester and Buffalo — all governments controlled by Democrats.

That shift has not yet materialized fully: The new directors from Erie County and the City of Buffalo have attended board meetings but cannot vote yet, pending licensing from the state Gaming Commission. And so far the new board — including Democratic appointees from Rochester and Monroe County — has stuck beside Wojtaszek.

Still, Democratic Party insiders told Investigative Post “the writing is on the wall” for the Republican. 

As for Brown, he’s been looking for a new job since winning an unprecedented fifth term as mayor in 2021. 

Last summer, he pursued the presidency of SUNY Buffalo State. He was not among the three finalists interviewed for the position. 

After that door closed, Brown floated himself as a candidate for the congressional seat being vacated by Brian Higgins. But he withdrew his name from consideration last month in deference to Kennedy, the state senator.

In 2014, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo nearly chose Brown as his candidate for lieutenant governor. But Cuomo was concerned that Brown was a subject in a “wide-ranging US Attorney’s Office investigation into some of western New York’s most influential power players,” according to a recent memoir by the former governor’s top aide and advisor, Melissa DeRosa.

So he dropped Brown in favor of Kathy Hochul.


Byron Brown during a recent meeting of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. Photo by Garrett Looker.


Over the years, Brown’s name has been mentioned in connection to various patronage plums in Albany and Washington, D.C. Nothing has panned out. 

Brown has been on the public payroll since the mid 1980s and in elected office since 1996. His salary this year is just over $178,000, thanks to a 12 percent pay raise for city elected officials adopted by the Common Council last summer. (That increase is the subject of a lawsuit.) He could retire at the end of this term and collect an estimated pension well over $100,000 per year, plus health insurance.

But the OTB job pays better and would increase his retirement benefits.

According to the state comptroller’s office, Wojtaszek has just over 23 years in the state pension system — enough to collect a generous retirement package, but shy of the 30 years that is the gold standard for public employees.

Last year, OTB’s outgoing board gave Wojtaszek and members of his management team contracts for the first time. Wojtaczek’s contract provides for severance pay of as much as two years’ base salary — that’s $574,000 — should the board dismiss him before his contract expires at the end of 2026. 

If he were to find a new job that paid less than OTB, the agency would be obligated to pay him the difference between the new salary and his current one until the term of his OTB contract expired.

No sure things

Western Regional OTB was created by state lawmakers in 1973 to curb the black market in bookmaking and provide revenues to local governments. It is owned by 15 counties in Western and Central New York, plus the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. It operates betting parlors, betting kiosks in restaurants and bars, and a casino and harness racing track at Batavia Downs, which also includes a hotel and restaurant.

Investigative Post has published more than 40 stories about OTB since 2018, detailing the improper award of high-end health insurance to its board members; extravagant spending on luxury boxes at concerts and Bills and Sabres games; and a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former OTB executive who claimed he faced retaliation by Wojtaszek and ultimately was fired for cooperating with investigators looking into OTB’s practices.

Among other inquiries, OTB has been under an FBI investigation since 2019 regarding the agency’s awarding of lucrative contracts to politically wired companies.



That’s a lot of baggage to carry into a mayoral election in North Tonawanda, where Tylec, the incumbent, says his administration is “fixing a lot of issues that [Republicans] created.”

As for Brown, he may have competition for the OTB job, should it open up. A former OTB board member told Investigative Post that Wilmot, recently appointed to the OTB board by Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, a Democrat, might also be interested.

Wilmot’s family has long been involved in the gambling and horse racing industries. He is currently vice president for gaming for Wilmorite Management Group LLC, the family’s real estate development firm. The firm built and ran the del Lago Resort and Casino, located between Rochester and Syracuse, before selling its stake in 2019.

That family business history gives pause to Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart. 

“What are the conflicts?” Barnhart told Investigative Post. “How do the Wilmots benefit? His professional relationships need to be untangled.”

Wilmot did not respond to requests for comment.



 


posted 17 hours ago – February 6, 2024

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