Niagara Gazette

November 20, 2012

Local lobbyists helping the OTB

Staff reports
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Western Regional Off Track Betting's bid to turn so-called "racinos" into full-fledged casinos is being helped by several lobbyists, including one with ties to Niagara County.

Records on file with the New York State Commission on Public Integrity show the OTB has hired the North Tonawanda firm Richardson Management to assist in its effort to secure a state license that would allow it to offer full casino gaming, including table games, at nine of its locations, including Batavia Downs racetrack in Erie County.

Richardson management, owned by Richard Winter — a North Tonawanda businessman who once worked as chief of staff to state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane — was hired by OTB in July. The agreement with OTB, which runs through June 1, 2013, notes that Richardson Management was hired "for the sole purpose" of assisting Western Regional Off-Track Betting in obtaining a "full casino gaming license from the state of New York."

Under the agreement, OTB has agreed to pay the firm $3,000 per month for its services which, according to the JCOPE filings, include "professional guidance, strategic advice and lobbying services at both the local and state level with an intent to help Batavia Downs one of seven casino gambling facilities chosen, per the New York State legislation."

Michael Kane, president and CEO of the Western Regional OTB, said Richardson Management is one of several lobbyists OTB has been working with in recent months to advance its gaming cause. The others, including Patricia Lynch Associates and Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, a law firm that also provides lobbying services, have been actively working with OTB to convince elected officials that gaming expansion makes financial sense.

"Quite frankly, in New York state, I think we need as many people fighting on our side as possible," Kane said.

Earlier this month, Niagara County lawmakers received a briefing from Michael Nolan, chief operating officer and vice president of Western Regional OTB, who asked for the legislature's support in allowing "racinos" like Batavia Downs that offer Video Lottery Terminals to add other games of chance, including table games, similar to those found at Class III gaming facilities operated by the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.

Niagara County lawmakers were scheduled Tuesday evening to consider approval of a resolution supporting OTB's gaming-expansion efforts. The resolution was placed on the agenda by Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane.

Kane said it is possible that Richardson Management has had some interaction on the local level in Niagara County, noting that OTB hired lobbyists in an effort to gain as much governmental support for their initiative as possible. Kane said Niagara County is one of 15 counties served by the Western Region OTB and, as such, benefits directly from revenue collected by the organization. As a result, Kane said, if gaming is expanded at Batavia Downs, Niagara County stands to gain as do the other municipal entities serving the area.

Lobbying is a legally regulated practice in New York by which individuals and firms registered with the state are hired to promote clients' interests within local, state and federal governments. The state requires registered lobbyists to periodically file reports with the JCOPE. Those reports include information about the lobbyists, their clients and the nature of their lobbying activities.

Maziarz said neither Winter nor any representatives from his firm have contacted him to discuss OTB's gaming expansion plan, although he said he has had conversations with Winter in the past about various energy-related issues. He noted that Winter's turn as chief of staff in his office came in the early stages of his state Senate career which dates back to 1995. Maziarz said he was not aware that OTB had entered into an agreement for Richardson Management's services. Maziarz acknowledged that he's known Winter for years and that the two went to college together, adding that Winter stopped working in his Senate office 15 years ago.

Maziarz said that while he has not talked with Winter about expanding casino offerings at "racinos," Tokacz, a Democrat who works for Patricia Lynch and Associates, has been in contact with him to discuss the topic.

When it comes to gaming expansion, Maziarz said he supported first passage in the state legislature under a bill that referenced seven locations, but did not describe any specific details. Moving forward, he said he will support what is expected to be a more-detailed gaming expansion bill only if he feels it benefits communities in his district, including those in Niagara County.

Amending the state's constitution to allow for expanded gaming offerings would require approvals by two separately elected legislatures. State lawmakers cleared the first hurdle earlier this year. A second vote could come as soon as next year.

"If this benefits my district, I'm going to support it," Maziarz said.

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, challenged the wisdom of the resolution supporting expanded gaming offerings at Batavia Downs when it was first introduced, arguing that it is not in Niagara County's best interest to advocate for casino gaming at locations in Erie County. He said his stance hasn't changed.

Virtuoso said he has not been contacted by Winter or any representative from Richardson Management on behalf of OTB, but noted that Winter's company represented Catholic Health earlier this year when it secured a contract to provide home health care services in Niagara County.

"I think we shouldn't be endorsing casinos in other areas," he said. "It's not going to give us any economic development whatsoever. We should be lobbying for another casino in Niagara Falls that would provide construction jobs for our people here."

Winter's profile on the Richardson Management website promotes the fact that he has extensive experience in state and regional government. In addition to serving as Maziarz's chief of staff, Winter has served as a commissioner on the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and as a director on the board for the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. Winter also owns and operates Winter Jewelry, a Buffalo-based fine jewelry outlet specializing in wholesale diamond sales and is the co-founder of Hats, Gloves and Love, LLC, a charity that provides hats and glove to needy local families.

Winter did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.