Anthony Bonomo, Governor Cuomo’s selection for Chairman of the Reorganization Board of the New York Racing Association, has now been forced to step aside, less than two months into his tenure. It follows his being linked to the indictment last Thursday of Senator Dean Skelos and his son Adam. Bonomo was neither charged in the indictment nor identified by name. It is now fairly clear, however, that it was his company, a medical malpractice insurer, that allegedly provided over $100,000 in salary and benefits to Adam Skelos in a no-show job scheme. The indictment alleges the payments were made while the insurer had matters pending in the state legislature.
To put this matter in context, when the United States Attorney released a criminal complaint to show probable cause for arresting Senator Skelos and his son a month ago, it characterized the provision of a different no-show job for Adam Skelos as bribery. I will emphasize again that neither Bonomo nor the company he heads has been identified or charged.
The allegations appear to be the closest connection to actual corruption against an official of the Cuomo Administration, and from someone who was a major contributor to the Governor’s political operation. It may be the height of irony that rooting out corruption in the prior NYRA was an ostensible reason for Cuomo’s seizing control of the group three years ago. While there was never any actual corruption by the prior officials, the Cuomo appointees took every opportunity to highlight their restoration of integrity to an entity that, in reality, did not lack it.
This remarkable development does, however, present an opportunity for New York to embark on a path to truly restore NYRA to the leadership role it once occupied in the thoroughbred industry. Bonomo’s leave of absence from the Reorganization Board means that a body established by law to have 17 voting members is now down to 13, following the failure of the Governor, the Assembly leadership and the old NYRA to replace three prior members who had resigned. It is a chance to appoint recognized industry leaders, thereby putting the “new” NYRA on a path to fulfill their sole responsibility under the law – restoring the New York Racing Association to private control.
The law written by Cuomo officials that took over NYRA required the newly constituted Reorganization Board to present a plan by last April to return government-control of racing back to private hands by October 18, 2015. Even though this was the only obligation of the new Board under the law, they did not accomplish it. So, this year’s budget extended both deadlines for an additional year.
I think there is a legitimate question as to whether this group has any intention of relinquishing control. Prior Board Chairman David Skorton let it slip that the next group to run New York racing would be “hopefully us.” Anthony Bonomo, in an interview with Bob Ehalt published in Thoroughbred Racing Commentary said in reference to the extension: “I don’t think it mattered. A lot is made of that, but at the end of the day we have to focus on racing, not who is controlling it.”
Bonomo’s alleged involvement in the Skelos indictments has nothing to do with his chairmanship of the NYRA Board. What it does do, however, is further the public perception that New York’s government is a fetid swamp of big-moneyed interests calling the shots in Albany. The initial proposal emanating from NYRA on re-privatization called for the current government-controlled board to pick the next one. That doesn’t return racing to private control; it perpetuates the state’s control. There clearly are better options, and now is a time to step back and do the right thing.
The current NYRA leadership may not appreciate the low esteem in which they are held by racing fans, horsemen and horsewomen. It stems from the enormous damage they have done to their credibility coupled with a lack of expertise when it comes to the sport they now run. If new Board members are going to again be drawn from a list of campaign contributors, that perception will not be altered. Adding even three respected and independent voices to the Board would go a long way to rehabilitate public trust.