Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Philanthropist, WNY Native Tees Off On 2020 Dems

Philanthropist and Western New York native Jeffrey Gundlach is perhaps best know in Buffalo for his donation of tens of millions of dollars to the world-famous Albright Knox Art Gallery.

In fact, as part of an expansion due in large part to Gundlach’s contribution, the museum will soon be named after him, as well as Albright and Knox. The generosity has earned the billionaire quite a bit of good will from local politicians.

However, on the national political level he may have fewer fans. Gundlach unleashed on the potential 2020 Democratic candidates during the Sohn Investment Conference, Monday.

Yahoo reported he called former Vice President Joe Biden the “frontrunner by far” but also referenced reports of unwanted touching that have plagued the Democrat so far.

“But, no, Joe, I don’t want you grabbing my shoulders and giving me an Eskimo kiss,” Gundlach said.

He also called former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke a “snowflake” and made fun of tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s “Universal Basic Income Policy” as being mathematically impossible. Perhaps, the most controversial for its potentially sexist implications, Gundlach went after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warner.

“I mean who wants four years of this? Who wants even four hours of this? It’s like being trapped with the mother in law from hell,” he said. “I say short Elizabeth Warren.”

The political analysis is becoming a Sohn tradition for Gundlach, who in 2016 made similar remarks about the Republican field while predicting Donald Trump would win.

Morelle Calls On Trump To Withdraw Nomination For U.S. Marshal

Rep. Joe Morelle, D-NY-25, is calling for President Donald to withdraw his nominee for U.S. Marshal in the Western District of New York.

The Buffalo News reported over the weekend, Trump had nominated former Erie County Central Police Services Commissioner Peter Vito for the post. Vito currently owns a private investigation service in Buffalo.

Morelle said it is a long-standing tradition the Western District U.S. attorney hails from Buffalo while the marshal comes from his district in Rochester. He called Vito’s nomination a slap in the face to Monroe County residents.

The congressman also criticized the president for nominating an ally of Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27. Vito served as Central Police Services Commissioner when Collins was Erie County Executive.

“Selecting someone for a law enforcement position based on a recommendation from an indicted Representative facing federal felony charges is an insult,” Morelle said.

Collins is currently awaiting trial on insider trading charges. He has made several appointment recommendations to the president, including attorney John Sinatra for a federal judgeship and former Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin to chair the International Joint Commission, but neither have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate yet.

Despite Recent Controversy, Western OTB Posts Record Derby Numbers

A week of rough headlines didn’t seem to put a damper on the biggest weekend of the year for the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation.

The OTB reported gamblers wagered a record of more than $2 million wagered on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Rochester’s Empire Branch was up 27 percent from the previous year, while wagers at Batavia Downs Gaming increased by 7 percent.

The Derby also brought in a record amount of people buying dinners at Batavia Downs and gambling on the gaming floor was up nearly $1 million from the previous best seven day period.

“The wagering, party and gaming numbers area continuation and reflection of the solid year Batavia Downs has been experiencing,” OTB President Henry Wojtaszek said. “We could not have pulled this off if it wasn’t for our dedicated Batavia Downs staff, who worked tirelessly on Derby Day. We appreciate the solid support from our loyal customer base.”

Business does not appear to be suffering, even as the Federal Bureau of Investigations has been inquiring about a number of OTB vendor contracts. Meanwhile, accusations of potential misuse of perks, like event tickets for customers, has led to increased scrutiny.

Members of the Niagara County Legislature, for instance, will focus on reports at an upcoming meeting Tuesday and one legislator has submitted a resolution asking the State Comptroller’s Office to conduct a full audit of OTB business. Wojtaszek and the corporation have strongly denied any accusations of impropriety.

At the same time, OTB continues to push for the state to allow sports betting at its facilities.

McMurray Starts Fundraising For 2020

From the Morning Memo;

The battle for NY-27 in Western New York was one of the closest congressional contests in the country in 2018.

Less than half a percentage point separated incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who was (and still is) facing federal insider trading charges, and his Democratic challenger Nate McMurray. Almost immediately after the results became final, local and national pundits began speculating about a 2020 rematch.

McMurray has not officially announced his candidacy for next year, outside of promising that if Collins runs again – not nearly a certainty – that he will, too. However, the Democrat definitely is making all the right moves that someone planning to run again would make.

Thursday afternoon, for example, he posted a video to Twitter, urging supporter to sign up to volunteer for, and to donate to, his yet-unofficial campaign.

“To keep Washington focused on this race, we need to start fundraising now,” McMurray said. “That money will be used to pay for competent staff that’s so hard to find and gets away early, and also to pay for the advertising and the outreach that we need to cover this giant district.”

In 2018, McMurray struggled to get institutional support from national Democrats and to raise money early on. That situation changed when Collins was indicted, but McMurray has lamented at times that the assistance came too late in the game to make a significant impact on his race.

That doesn’t appear to be the case this time around. In his video, McMurray notes he has already met with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently, and it has named NY-27 one of its priorities races.

“They asked me to start now, building that volunteer base again that was so powerful before and to start the fundraising process,” he said.

Collins is not scheduled to go to trial until February 2020, which is before the general election, but well into the campaign season. McMurray said nobody knows what is going to happen with that litigation, which is part of the reason he is preparing now.


Zemsky Stepping Down As NY Economic Development Czar

Empire State Development confirmed Thursday afternoon that its president and CEO Howard Zemsky is stepping down.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said he will become the board chair for ESD and help with the search for his replacement. Zemsky officially was confirmed to the position in March 2015.

The governor’s office said there is no timetable to name his replacement. Zemsky will still maintain his day-to-day responsibilities until ESD finds a new president.

“Heading ESD and being Governor Cuomo’s head of economic development has been the honor of a lifetime,” he said in a text message. “I look forward to continuing our work together growing the economy in Buffalo and across the state as ESD Board Chair.”

Zemsky has become a fairly well-known figure across the state, often traveling with the governor or serving as his proxy at public events. He has helped lead Cuomo’s signature economic development initiative, the Buffalo Billion.

Prior to joining ESD, Zemsky worked with the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. He also heads Larkin Development Group which revitalized an old factory in Buffalo’s Larkin District into a one million square foot office space.

Buffalo Plans To Convert Street Lights To LED In Cost Saving Measure

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown presented his annual city budget yesterday, which included a creative cost-saving measure.

Brown said the city plans to purchase a new outdoor lighting system and convert all the bulbs to LEDs. Once the full conversion is done, he maintains, the city believes it will save roughly $1 million annually.

“That will have significant savings to the city’s overall budget due to the fact that we’ll be reducing energy and reducing the cost of energy that we have to pay for, and also reducing the costs that we currently pay to National Grid to maintain the system. We’ll be taking it on ourselves,” Buffalo Commissioner of Public Works Mike Finn said.

Finn said the new system costs less because LED bulbs require less maintenance. He said the bulbs can last for up to 25 years each.

First, however, Buffalo will have to buy the system from National Grid, which it believes will be done in the next several months. The conversion will happen over the next three years.

Buffalo had 32,000 outdoor lights. The vast majority are street lights, but it also includes fixtures in parks and parking lots.

Brown said the LED Conversion Program includes entering into a partnership with the New York Power Authority. Other places across the country, including New York City, have already begun LED conversion programs which also serve to reduce greenhouse gasses.

U.S. Senate Still Hasn’t Appointed New IJC Commissioners

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, did not have much nice to say about the International Joint Commission following a land and boat tour Wednesday of Lake Ontario in Niagara County,

He called out the body, which regulates water levels of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, for not doing a good enough job to avoid flooding in New York in recent years. He did however, say there is good news this year.

“We now have New York representation on the IJC which is something we’ve been asking for for a long time, and hopefully we get a better response from the IJC now that there’s a New Yorker,” Cuomo said.

That is not exactly correct. While three new United States commissioners have been nominated by the president’s office, including former Western New York Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who would serve as the new chair, those nominees have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

In fact, Wednesday, Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27, who recommended Corwin for the job, wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, again asking them to expedite the confirmations. Collins said new commissioners need to address the controversial 2014 regulation plan, which many, the governor included, said has not worked.

“The water levels are increasing at a rate of ½ inch per day on average and this is putting shoreline property owners and businesses at risk,” Collins said. “As I have said before, we cannot wait until our community is impacted by another flooding to take action, especially when this situation could have been prevented.”

A spokesperson from Schumer’s office said the minority leader continues to support the nominations, but only McConnell has control over the confirmation schedule. She pointed out that there is IJC staff that handle the water levels day-to-day, so confirmation wouldn’t immediately change how things are managed this year.

The terms of all six commissioners have expired, Schumer’s office also pointed out, since there are no sitting Canadian members, there won’t immediately be a quorum for the commission to meet even if the three U.S. commissioners are appointed soon.

That is not particularly good news, with historically high lake levels already, and growing concern from communities there will be a repeat of the extreme flooding and erosion seen in 2017. The state said they’re taking preventive measures, separate the IJC, including assisting with pumping water and fortifying the shoreline.

Schumer also announced Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a Declaration of Emergency Wednesday to ensure quick response.

Sources: FBI Looking Into Western Regional OTB Contracts

The Federal Bureau of Investigations has interviewed multiple people connected to the Western Region Off-Track Betting Corporation.

Multiple sources told Spectrum News the questions pertained to contracts issued to several businesses with ties to corporation leadership, including Richardson Management, Regency Communications, and Growth Marketing Group. The same sources said investigators also asked about other various lobbying and personal services contracts as well.

As a general practice, neither the bureau nor the U.S. Attorney confirms or denies investigation.

Richardson Management is a business development and government relations firm headed by Rick Winter, the father of Niagara County OTB Board Member Elliot Winter. The Richardson contract was worth roughly $125,000.

Regency Communications is a firm headed by former Niagara County Legislator Glenn Aronow, who was also an aide to former Republican state Senator George Maziarz. Regency received about $75,000 from OTB.

In 2017, Maziarz faced five felony charges in a political corruption case but roughly a year later, pleaded guilty to only one misdemeanor election law violation. In February of this year, he publicly released discovery materials from that case he said pointed to Winter and now-OTB President Henry Wojtaszek, then involved with the Niagara County GOP Committee, conspiring to rig a bid for Niagara County government contract.

Wojtaszek called those claims baseless at the time. OTB released a statement denying any knowledge of a current FBI investigation.

“The FBI has not confirmed that there is an investigation of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation (WROTB) and WROTB has not received any inquiry from the FBI,” a spokesperson said. “Any inquiry or investigation would learn that our contracts are reviewed by an independent Board of Directors appointed by the County Legislatures of 15 counties and the Mayors of two cities. These contracts are audited, public documents and available for public inspection. Furthermore, WROTB has Procurement Policies that are strictly observed.  We are proud of our record at WROTB, as the only municipally owned and operated gaming facility in New York State. We are not just a strong economic driver for Western New York, but we provide critical funding for community development which creates jobs, protects families and helps to offset tax increases for residents.”

The third company, Growth Marketing Group, is owned by Rochester-based businessman and political operative Arnie Rothschild. Sources said Rothschild has close ties to OTB Board Chairman Richard Bianchi, a member of the Monroe County Conservative Party Executive Committee.

Rothschild told Spectrum News Rochester he didn’t know anything about an investigation.

The FBI interviews took place several weeks ago, with some follow ups. Sources believe the inquiry may have been spurred by Maziarz’s press conference, as names tied to the OTB were also well-connected to the Niagara County Republican Committee.

The Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek called for a special investigation into the allegations. She recused herself since she is Henry Wojtaszek’s spouse and Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley was appointed as special counsel.

Maziarz pointed out Tuesday, while he called for media and authorities to look into the OTB, particularly whether it was misusing suite tickets to Buffalo Bills games, Buffalo Sabres games, and other outings and events, he had not heard anything about contract issues. The Niagara County Legislature, one of 17 municipal bodies that co-owns Off-Track Betting has taken particular interest in the former claims.

Earlier this month, the Legislature passed a resolution calling for OTB to release a list of names that had received tickets and other perks. The legislators also expressed frustration the corporation was not honoring Freedom of Information Law requests from outlets like the Niagara Gazette and the Investigative Post, which initially reported the FBI inquiry.

The resolution’s sponsor, County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D, submitted two more resolutions Tuesday. The first asks the county attorney to demand the list of names as the corporation has yet to provide them. The second asks the State Comptroller’s Office to commence a full OTB audit, including cell phone useage, vehicle mileage and pay raises.

ECHDC Announces New ‘Buffalo Waterfront’ Brand

From the Morning Memo:

Frankly, it hasn’t always been clear what reporters should call the areas of Buffalo next to the bodies of water that separate the city from Canada.

I personally have used a variety of names over the years – from the waterfront, to the harbor, to the Aud Block. None of these titles are necessarily wrong, but they do invite confusion.

Over the last half a decade or so, as development has proliferated in the area, we seem to have settled on two names: Canalside, for the tourist spot next to the hockey arena, and the Outer Harbor, for the less developed area a short drive – and an even shorter kayak trip – away from Canalside.

Yesterday, the agency that runs the two locations announced a rebranding (of sorts). Both Canalside and the Outer Harbor will henceforth go by the umbrella name “Buffalo Waterfront.”

After a bit of confusion, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation explained that the old identities are not officially going away. It promised more information this week with the launch of a new website to accompany the rebranding effort.

“The new parent brand with a new waterfront website will serve as a single online stop that will better inform the public of Canalside and Outer Harbor events and activities, with a goal of drawing more tourism and awareness to Buffalo’s waterfront,” the agency said.

Why does this matter? Well, Canalside, with its summer concerts, ice skating in the winter, and other activities has turned out millions of visitors annually.
Perhaps, ECHDC wants to leverage that name brand as it attempts to boost tourism at the Outer Harbor, as well.

State and federal leaders have discussed how to best utilize the area for years.

Senecas Take Casino Dispute To Department Of Interior

From the Morning Memo:

The Seneca Nation of Indians is calling on the U.S. Department of Interior to review an arbitration panel’s decision in regards to an ongoing dispute over casino revenue sharing.

The panel ruled the Senecas are required to continue to pay a portion of slot machine revenue to the state, and also make two years in back payments. It was determined last week that those payments total more than $255 million.

The Nation, however, quickly indicated it did not plan to pay until it had explored legal options. Although the arbitration was the defined legal process to resolve disputes in their compact with the state, Seneca leaders believed this panel improperly amended the compact without permission in its ruling.

They said the panel created obligations to make payments for years 15-21 of the compact despite the fact those payments were not explicitly spelled out in the document.

“The Seneca Nation and the Seneca people deserve to have our agreements with other governments honored and protected, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to ignore, violate, and, in this case, blatantly change the agreements we have made. By exercising our right to request that the Department review the amendment, the Nation leadership is fulfilling our obligation to the Seneca people to always defend our sovereignty and the sanctity of our agreements,” President Rickey Armstrong, Sr. said.

He said, according to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, all amendments to compacts must be reviewed by the Secretary of the Interior before they can lawfully be enforced. It’s unclear if and when the federal government will take up the issue.

The state has not commented on the recent developments.