Service on the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation Board of Directors is a strictly part-time arrangement. Members attend a single two-day meeting per month at Batavia Downs Gaming, with their overnight accommodation and meals provided at the Racino Hotel. Under New York law, compensation for board members is strictly capped at $4,000 per year, plus travel expenses. But for Batavia board members, this is just the beginning of what they receive.
According to the Buffalo-based investigative Post, 13 of 17 current directors and three retired directors also have health insurance through WROTB. These policies are among the most expensive on the market with annual premiums that can exceed $30,000 for a single director. They include full coverage for family members, no deductibles or copayments, and free dental and vision care. Trustees who stay on the board for 10 years, as many do, are allowed to take their policy with them after they leave, free of charge.
One of the directors to receive these state-banned health plans is Niagara County’s appointed representative on the WROTB board, Elliot Winter. His father, Rick Winter, was the county board representative before him and also received the health plan.
Documents the agency was forced to release under the Freedom of Information Act put the value of all that coverage at more than $229,000 per yearbut because these policies are supplemented by other “self-insurance” payments coming directly from the agency, the actual expense to taxpayers is more than $500,000 a year, according to Michael Nolan, former director of the operation of the agency.
But according to an official notice from the New York Attorney General, these taxpayer-funded health plans are also illegal. In 2008, the Attorney General issued an opinion to another public off-track betting operation, on Long Island, and was unequivocal: “The board does not have the authority to offer health insurance benefits or, more generally, to establish the remuneration of its own members. .” In other words, the rules of what board members can receive are set by state law, not the whims of the board members who will benefit.
Lawyers hired at taxpayer expense to defend the council’s health plans insist they are legal, citing a “non-binding opinion” issued by the New York Comptroller in 1978. But the council and the agency know although this notice (released the same year as the movie Grease) has long been superseded by changes in state law and directly by the comptroller’s office.
In an email earlier this week, the comptroller’s office reiterated its long-held position on the illegality of OTB health plans: “The state comptroller has repeatedly and unambiguously informed the “OTB that the old 1978 notice was directly rejected by this office years ago. We urge OTB to take appropriate action to recover monies wrongly spent.
Less fortunate in terms of health coverage are the men and women who work in the agency’s operations. They range from the janitors who sweep the floors of the Batavia casino to the attendants who tend to the OTB betting parlors. In December, I spoke with half a dozen of these workers, all members of the United Public Service Employees Union.
Unlike board members and their monthly meetings, OTB salon workers typically work 13-hour shifts, staffing operations open every day of the year except Christmas and Easter. It’s not an easy job. A betting parlor in Buffalo was robbed at gunpoint last August. These workers asked me not to use their names for fear of retaliation from management.
Unlike part-time board members, those who work in salons do not have health coverage for their families. With few exceptions, they are offered a policy just for themselves. If they want a family plan, they have to pay for it, but it would cost them $1,800 a month. In the agency’s current negotiations with the workers’ union, the board is also seeking to reduce that health coverage, citing the need to cut costs.
“They are trying to take benefits away from employees who have been there for over twenty years,” Antonella Rotilio, their union representative, told me. “A lot of our members are really upset because the council can keep their own health insurance.” A 20-year-old employee told me, “I could go to Mighty Taco if I wanted to and make more than my normal salary, but I’m staying for health insurance.
Last year, as news of Batavia’s board’s expensive health plans made local headlines, the board tried to play down the controversy by voting to eliminate health coverage for all new hires. administrators, while keeping it to themselves. Indeed, the board recognized the legal issues involved, but still decided to keep their coverage. Siebert told a local newspaper that “nobody raised a problem with it” until it went public.
COMING FRIDAY: Henry Wojtaszek’s political fortress.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Batavia Downs Gaming, otherwise known as Western Regional Off-Track Betting (WROTB), is a licensed public benefit corporation under the law of the State of New York. It is collectively owned by 15 western New York counties as well as the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. Its operations include the racetrack, casino and hotel in Batavia, as well as its network of more than two dozen betting parlors in the region. By law, the profits it makes are supposed to be divided among these local governments to help fund local services. It is governed by a board of directors appointed by these same local governments.
Batavia Downs Gaming has also been the subject of a series of corruption allegations. These include illegal taxpayer-funded health plans for its board members as well as handing out expensive luxury box tickets to Buffalo Bills games and other events to board members. administration and senior officials of the agency, also at the expense of the taxpayer.
Local columnist Jim Shultz recently completed an extensive six-month investigation into those charges, including interviews with agency whistleblowers and others. In April, he published a national article based on these surveys, A Study of American Kleptocracy, in the New York Review (of which he is one of the editors). This week, the Niagara Gazette publishes “Shaking The Money-Maker,” a four-part series by Shultz based on that same investigation. The series continues through the Weekend edition.