- Integrity is the big buzzword in the NY franchise race these days; and when one of the rival bidders or a politician uses the word, what they really mean is "not corrupt like NYRA."
Empire Racing has been relentless in using the issue to distinguish themselves from the incumbent, and last week, they issued a press release announcing the appointment of Daniel R. Alonso, a respected former federal prosecutor specializing in white collar crime, as its new Integrity Czar, stating that his "ongoing counseling will support Empire Racing's unwavering commitment to restore integrity to the franchise and promote the highest ethical standards for New York racing."
The politicians continue to refer to integrity as a way to demonstrate that they, of course, are above the fray; and to put as much distance as possible between them and an entity seen as being corrupt. Spitzer, during his gubernatorial campaign, late last year criticized the concept of integrity being given a weight of 20% in the selection process, while the business plan was 50%.
Spitzer said having 20% of the bid's value be based on the integrity of the bidder makes no sense. Instead, he said, franchise suitors should be forced to meet the integrity standard before even having their bids considered.Sheldon Silver echoed Spitzer remarks, though a bit clumsily, a couple of weeks ago.
"I would have said as a prerequisite that the bidding entities have an absolute clean bill of health when it comes to integrity,'' he said. [Bloodhorse]
It all stems of course from the 2003 federal indictment regarding tax evasion schemes by NYRA clerks, and lax oversight of such by management; as well as investigations by then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and another by former Comptroller Alan Hevesi that told of, among other things, country club memberships and excessive travel expenses paid for with state money.
However, it's been almost a year and a half now since a federal monitor, in recommending that the indictments be dismissed, praised the association for "taking a stand on integrity," citing its new management team, improved corporate governance and unprecedented efforts to address illegal medication. Even the now-disgraced Hevesi, amongst NYRA's most savage critics, said at the time: "There has been a remarkable improvement at NYRA. It is not the same agency it was 18 months ago." Yet the corrupt label sticks to the association as closely as does Jay Pandolfo on Jaromir Jagr, as further evidenced by the poor grades given to NYRA on integrity by the ad hoc committee.
And in what is the ultimate in irony, the federal monitor's report makes NYRA the only one of the bidders to have actually received something akin to the "clean bill of health" that the governor spoke about.
Though a Spitzer spokesperson has said, of integrity, that you either have it or you don't, Empire seems determined to out-integrity the competition. The press release speaks of an Integrity Task Force, an integrity Plan, a Corporate Integrity Program, an integrity hotline for employees, and employee Integrity Assessments. Next thing you know they'll be selling Integrity Fries in their cafeteria.
The release briefly touches on Jared Abbruzzese, under investigation for his business dealings with Senator Bruno, but refers to him only as a Director, and claims that the company commissioned a probe of the matter by an independent law firm. The investigation concluded that Empire acted promptly, properly heeded the advice of outside professionals and moved to resolve the situation in a manner that reflected Empire's commitment to the highest ethical standards. Meaning, they bought him out and told him to get lost, as if they really had any other choice.
A more meaningful investigation, of course, would have been to determine if the Director was inproperly attempting to influence an elected official and, if so, who, if anyone, knew about or directed those alleged activities. And a more meaningful discussion of integrity, at least to us fans, would involve that related to the racing itself.
It's another bit of irony that the June, 2003 press release that announced the findings of the Attorney General's office stated: Spitzer stressed that the integrity of the races at NYRA tracks was not being questioned in his report.
And that, I think, is what New York, and all racing fans really care about when it comes to integrity. Sure, we would never want to see anyone ripping off the IRS, and we expect management not to enrich themselves at the taxpayers' expense. However, possible attempts to buy influence with state officials aside, we have no reason to be concerned that either Empire or Excelsior would condone or participate in the kind of corruption that got NYRA in trouble. (We really know little about Capitol Play other than they have a lot of money.)
Empire is clearly just engaging in some political PR and damage control here. What we'd love to hear instead from them, as well as from the other bidders, is what they plan to do to enhance the integrity of the sport. NYRA instituted the pre-race detention barns. How do the other bidders feel about that? Would they continue and/or expand the program? What is their position on the concept of suspending the horses of trainers caught with positives, thereby making the punishments truly meaningful instead of a mere vacation in Mexico? How do they feel about a recent winner against $35,000 claimers suddenly entered for $7,500 and breaking down on the track? What steps would they take to prevent that from happening again?
With what we all hope will be the beginning of an enlightened age of new and sensible racing law and business practices in the state in conjunction with the change (or not) in the franchise holder, why shouldn't New York be the state to take the lead on positive steps in addressing illegal medication? We're still waiting to hear a meaningful discussion of those and other issues important to the fans other than not having slots at Saratoga.