OTB’s bills for attorneys and lobbyists continue to climb, with attorney fees up to $450 an hour. This is money that would otherwise be distributed to local governments.

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. continues to spend a lot of money – that is, big sums of public money – on lawyers and lobbyists.

Documents obtained by Investigative Post via a Freedom of Information request show that OTB paid $333,684 to four Buffalo-based law firms between May 18, 2021 and April 1. of this year.

The legal fees are in addition to the $16,500 a month the OTB pays Albany lobbyists currently under contract.

What lobbyists do for money can be gleaned from documents filed with a state regulatory commission. But invoices submitted by two of OTB’s law firms – Connors, LLP and hodgson russ – did not include details of the work performed.

OTB hired rated Buffalo defense attorney Terry Connors in 2019 after a series of critical stories by Investigative Post. last fall, a pair of status audits confirmed that OTB officials misused tickets paid for by the agency. Auditors also found that CEO Henry Wojtaszek failed to properly account for the personal use of his agency-issued vehicle. Following the publication of the audits, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli called on the state-created public authority to “clean up its operation”.

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Last year, Connors prepared a 380-page internal report that OTB officials said addressed the allegations of misconduct and exonerated Wojtaszek and others of any wrongdoing. OTB has refused repeated requests to release a copy of the report, arguing that it is protected from public disclosure due to “attorney-client privilege”.

Invoices obtained by Investigative Post show OTB paid $49,935 to Connors, LLP between July 30, 2021 and March 24 of this year.

The law firm’s invoices are not itemized and are instead labeled “attorney-client privilege”. The distinction may, in limited circumstances, be asserted by public bodies such as under state law.

In an interview with Investigative Post, Connors declined to discuss the nature of his company’s work with OTB, saying only that he was asked to review activities that were the subject of media reports.

When asked if his company’s work involved a federal investigation into OTB’s activities, Connors said, “I’m not aware of any ongoing federal investigation regarding OTB.”

A copy of a September 30, 2021 agreement between Connors, LLP and OTB, which was obtained by Investigative Post via a freedom of information request, shows that Connors’ business spent at least part of its response to a lawsuit filed by former state senator George Maziarz last year.

Maziarz sued OTB after the agency denied his request for various internal documents, including cellphone records issued by Wojtaszek’s agency.

Connors’ firm charges between $275 and $425 an hour for attorney services and $125 an hour for paralegals.

Connors said he couldn’t discuss the specific OTB bills in question because he hadn’t seen them. He described it as “standard practice” for detailed service listings to withhold when they contain “inside” information.

“The advice and information we provide to the public entity is protected by solicitor-client privilege, but the amount is traceable,” he said.

Paul Wolfa lawyer who is chairman of the open government advocacy group, the New York Coalition for Open Governmentdoes not agree.

Wolf stated that existing case law and opinions issued by the New York State Committee on Open Government ruled that not all communications between the client and the lawyer can be considered privileged.

“Some things on their bill can be redacted, but not everything,” Wolf said.

Hodgson Russ represented OTB in a different legal matter – whistleblower trial filed in 2020 by the agency’s former chief operating officer, Mike Nolan. The lawsuit accuses Wojtaszek and board chairman Richard Bianchi of retaliating against Nolan after he agreed to cooperate with state and federal agencies investigating OTB.

Records show OTB paid $55,519.41 to Hodgson Russ between June 22, 2021 and March 21 this year. The invoices include the costs of the services, but do not describe the nature of the services provided.

Invoices filed by OTB’s other two law firms – Harris Beach and Shroder, Joseph & Associates – include a description of the legal services rendered.

Records show OTB paid $212,076 to Harris Beach between May 18, 2021 and March 11 of this year. The largest payment — $144,388 made on July 13, 2021 — was for the bond refinancing.

The documents show the law firm also received $47,947.50 for work on OTB’s acquisition of The Hotel at Batavia Downs. Members of the OTB Board of Directors authorized the purchase ownership of the hotel for $8 million in February.

Schroder, Joseph & Associates, a law firm specializing in employee and labor matters, received $16,152 from the OTB between Oct. 8, 2021 and March 24, documents show.

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In addition to legal aid, OTB has assembled a team of lobbyists to represent its interests in Albany.

In March, OTB’s board of directors agreed to hire Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates – a firm headed by a longtime state associate Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie — under a four-month contract for $15,000 a month.

The previously retained agency Upstate Strategic Advisorsa lobbying firm headed by the former State Assembly Member Sam Hoytfor $3,500 per month and Mercury Public Affairs for $8,000 a month.

Reports filed with the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which oversees lobbying activities statewide, show that lobbyists representing the OTB have had contact with the offices of several senior state officials, including Governor Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers who sit on Racing. Gaming and betting commissions in the Senate and the Assembly.

Lobbyists claim to represent OTB on a variety of horse racing and gaming issues. They also show contacts with state officials to discuss legislation proposed earlier this year by state senator Tim Kennedy, a Democrat from Buffalo who has called for reforms which he said would correct the “perverse dysfunction” within the OTB.

OTB is a public benefit corporation that operates the Batavia Downs harness track and casino and off-track betting venues in western and central New York. It distributes its profits to 15 counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.