Day At The Track

USTA’s budget: More for lawyers, less for employees

01:06 PM 19 Sep 2020 NZST
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The plan to spend money it doesn’t have to prepare to challenge integrity legislation.

Did you know that the USTA is operating this year with a budget deficit of $219,940? I didn’t. Did you know that at the same time the USTA is operating under this deficit it has cut salaries by $170,000 and rejected at least two attempts to provide more funding for the protection of unwanted horses? I didn’t know that, either. I also didn’t know that while the USTA is taking these unfortunate steps it authorized $425,000 in funding to prepare itself to challenge the constitutionality of whatever racing integrity legislation ultimately emerges from Congress.

In other words, the USTA is running a budget deficit, and saddling its employees with pay cuts or worse, while it spends beyond its means to take on Congress, the executive branch, the Thoroughbred industry, animal rights activists, and all the many other powerful entities who have lined up to support a meaningful change to the way horse racing operates in the United States. Did you sign up for such a use of your USTA membership dues? I didn’t. Did your USTA director ask you what you think of the pending legislation? Mine sure didn’t.

The complex federal litigation the USTA is preparing for-- no one spends $425,000 to study the constitutionality of a statute it does not intend to subsequently challenge-- will take millions of dollars and many years to conclude. And even if after all that the USTA somehow wins, which is unlikely, the victory would likely mean some sort of return to the current system we all surely can agree is a total failure. Even if the USTA wins, in other words, we all will lose. Another kicker? Throughout the course of that litigation harness racing will be vulnerable to political attacks by powerful people who want less racing-- including the very legislators we are begging to continue purse subsidies.

We all deserve more answers about the USTA’s expenditure of this money. What justifies it at a grim time when the USTA is telling its own employees they have to do with less? Why didn't USTA leaders ask members for their input before authorizing the expense? How much already has been spent? How exactly is it being monitored? How were these lawyers and lobbyists selected? What are their connections to harness racing or to members of the USTA’s board? What outreach did the USTA undertake to educate members about its decision to spend precious resources in this fashion? 

I asked the USTA’s Dan Leary some of these questions last week. His response via email: “As the public record reflects, the funding was unanimously approved by the full USTA Board of Directors at the Annual Meeting in April and has been closely monitored by the Executive Committee since then. The purpose is to examine and analyze the legality and constitutionality of the Horse Racing Integrity Act. That examination is continuing. We will be prepared to discuss these efforts when the work is completed.”

No organization committed to transparency and accountability would offer to “discuss these efforts” only after all the money is all spent. Russell Williams, over the weekend, in a condescending open letter to Jeff Gural, defended the expenditure and then hinted that the law firm he hired to do the work reached a conclusion that the legislation is legally vulnerable. Of course it did. Give any law firm $425,000 and you can expect its lawyers to cobble together an argument you want it to make. And, sure enough, on Monday the USTA announced online that its hired guns had concluded that the legislation is likely unconstitutional.

The smart people who support the federal legislation say that their very own smart lawyers have vetted the measure and revised it to make it less likely to be struck down by the courts. Ultimately, federal judges will decide-- after the USTA exposes itself for years to lawmakers and animal rights activists as an industry that wasn't willing to embrace a new approach to racing safety and integrity. Imagine paying all that money for the privilege of becoming a target for lawsuits and new legislative attempts to end purse subsidies-- without first giving USTA members the chance to vote on whether we want to travel down this perilous road.

Not in my name. If the legislation passes, and it looks like it will, then those in harness racing who believe it should be challenged in court can all pool their own money and litigate the matter privately. Good luck with that. This is what I think the USTA is getting at, in those April minutes linked to above, when we see this: “Once the analysis is completed, we will be looking for other outside support to fund the balance.” So why then is the USTA footing the bill for the first $425,000 of this dubious endeavor? Why is that “outside support” not paying now? 

Here’s an idea. How about a vote of USTA members with a single question involving the expenditure of the $425,000: What's the best use for that money: Paying lawyers to fight popular and bipartisan federal legislation to improve racing integrity or helping horsemen and horsewomen offset some of the additional drug testing costs that will come from the legislation once it’s passed? Or, better yet, what's more important, paying the salaries of USTA employees or funding lengthy and expensive litigation that if successful brings us to where we are today.

Even if you are queasy about the pending federal legislation you should be alarmed that the USTA is operating in this manner. I have heard from many horsemen and horsewomen over the past few weeks who are simply shocked to discover that the USTA’s vitriolic opposition to federal legislation-- seemingly any federal legislation-- has found such profound expression in the association’s budget. Many are growing less skeptical of the pending federal legislation-- in its new and improved form-- and more skeptical of the USTA’s divisive and dangerous antics in opposing it.

Andrew Cohen



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