Former Plainridge Racecourse president Gary T. Piontkowski “pulled a fast one” on his business partners by taking at least $1 million in cash from the harness track’s money room through frequent withdrawals of small amounts over many years, according to sworn testimony before the state gambling commission.
“The former president was deceptive,” said Stanley E. Fulton, the track’s principal investor, who claims he had no knowledge of the withdrawals before state gambling investigators brought them to his attention this spring. “Had I known of these withdrawals from the money room, they would never have been allowed to happen.”
Investigators discovered the withdrawals while vetting Plainridge for a slot parlor license. The allegations against Piontkowski, catalogued in a new report from the commission’s enforcement arm, were painstakingly reviewed in an all-day hearing Thursday on Plainridge’s fitness to hold a state casino license.
The total amount Piontkowski is alleged to have taken from the money room is blacked out in the version of the investigative report released to the public. But Commissioner Gayle Cameron, while questioning Fulton, said the amount was in the “seven figures.” The track recorded the cash withdrawals in its accounting books, essentially classifying them as loans to Piontkowski, according to testimony and the commission’s report. When this money was not repaid at the end of each year the track reclassified the withdrawals as distributions to Piontkowski.
The track’s chief financial officer, Timothy Petersen, who apparently knew about the money room practices and tried to call attention to them, suddenly resigned his post within the past few days, according to Plainridge officials. Petersen was not at the hearing Thursday, which troubled the commission.
“It seems to me his testimony is critical,” said commissioner James McHugh.
For years, Piontkowski was the public face of Plainridge and its pursuit of slot machines. He abruptly resigned in April, citing health concerns. The real reason he left, according to testimony, was that the track’s majority partners quietly pressured him out, replacing him with John Grogan, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a former consultant for Plainridge.
Track officials stressed at the hearing that they have new rules to improve internal controls, including the establishment of a board of advisors. Fulton, who had been a passive investor, has recently become chief executive and will have an active role. Grogan vowed to change the “culture” of the organization, and encourage employees to speak up if they notice the business being performed incorrectly.
But several commissioners pressed track officials on how they handled Piontkowski’s exit. According to testimony, the partners bought out Piontkowski’s shares and apparently did not demand Piontkowski repay the cash he had withdrawn from the money room.
“One of the most powerful ways” to change the culture of an organization “is to hold people accountable,” said commission chairman Stephen Crosby, suggesting that it appeared Piontkowski “was handled with kid gloves.”
Track officials said they decided to cut ties with Piontkowski quickly and cleanly to avoid a costly lawsuit. “As a business decision, it just had to be done,” said Fulton.
Revelations about Piontkowski’s alleged money withdrawals percolated Thursday through the state’s harness racing community.
“We are all dumbfounded, you know?” said Jim Hardy, a driver at the five-eighths-of-a-mile harness track in Plainville.
Bill Abdelnour, a retired school teacher turned harness driver, spent Thursday jogging horses around the track and talking to fellow horsemen who, like him, see slot machines as the only way to keep horses racing in Plainville.
“I think there’s some general concern about what’s going on,” Abdelnour said from home in Worcester, where he followed the commission hearing online. “I think the majority of us feel if there were mistakes made in the past, they have been corrected and they are moving forward.”
Abdelnour also praised Piontkowski as the savior of harness racing in Massachusetts.
“We just feel privileged to be here and there is not a person down here who does not believe Gary Piontkowski got us here,” said Abdelnour. “What went wrong, I don’t know. I hope the commission understands that the people who are up there now are righting the ship. We are a country of second chances.”
The gambling commission next week will privately debate Plainridge’s suitability to run a slot parlor. The panel will then issue a written decision on whether the track will be deemed qualified to compete for the license.
by Mark Arsenault (reprinted with permission by www.bostonglobe.com)