09/16/2007 11:00PM

Charges dismissed against NYRA scale clerks

EmailA Saratoga County Court judge on Monday dismissed all charges against two former New York Racing Association employees who were accused of allowing jockeys at NYRA's tracks to ride up to 15 pounds overweight in 59 races in 2004.

Judge Jerry Scarano ruled that the case brought by the New York attorney general against former NYRA clerk of scales Mario Sclafani and his assistant, Braulio Baeza, was based on evidence obtained from a scale at NYRA's Saratoga Racecourse that was not reliable. The trial against the two began on Sept. 6.

Sclafani, 50, and Baeza, 67, were indicted late in 2005 by former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer after a grand jury returned a 291-count indictment. Since the indictment was released, attorneys for Sclafani and Baeza have maintained that their clients were innocent, saying that the prosecution did not understand weigh-in and weigh-out procedures and that the indictment never proved that Sclafani or Baeza had any criminal intent or benefited from any misrepresentations of weight.

"It's clear [the prosecution] did not understand the rules or the procedures," said Todd Greenberg, the attorney for Sclafani, after the charges were dismissed.

"It's true that the process has some vague, ambiguous, and conflicting rules," said Paul DerOhannesian, the attorney for Baeza, a Hall of Fame rider. "But there was also a careless investigation by the state and the attorney general, and that's because they didn't understand the rules of racing."

Although the indictment named five riders, none of the jockeys was charged with a crime. Sclafani and Baeza were each charged with multiple counts of tampering with a sports contest, falsifying business records, schemes to defraud, conspiracy, grand larceny, and petit larceny.

Baeza said on Monday after the ruling that he hoped to get involved again in racing. "Racing is my whole life," Baeza said. "It's all I know. I think these people misled the public about us. They tried to blame us for something, and we never did anything wrong. That's what the judge said."

Judge Scarano ruled that there was no basis for any of the charges that arose out of races conducted at Saratoga Racecourse. The indictment also referenced races at Aqueduct and Belmont, so the case could be filed in courts with jurisdiction over those racetracks to address those specific charges. Officials in the state attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Greenberg and DerOhannesian said they doubted the state would attempt to pursue any other charges because of the result of the Saratoga case.

Racing officials have said since the indictment was released that investigators in the case may not have taken into account the procedures used by clerks of scales to adjust weights for additional material and equipment when riders weigh-in after a race. Both Greenberg and DerOhannesian said that the prosecution did not understand that the weights of the additional equipment were not included in the final weight.

In New York and many other jurisdictions, riders do not carry their helmets or safety vests to the scale prior to a race, but must carry the equipment to the scales following a race. Accordingly, many clerks of scales subtract the estimated weight of that equipment and any material that is kicked up by the track before recording the official weigh-in number.

Sclafani and Baeza were fired by NYRA after the indictment was released. According to NYRA officials at the time, the state attorney general was notified by NYRA personnel about the possibility of criminal activity during weighing procedures, a tip-off that resulted in raids at all three of NYRA's tracks in January 2005. NYRA was operating under a deferred-prosecution agreement at the time on charges related to fraud among mutuel employees.

John Lee, a spokesperson for NYRA, said that he could not comment on whether Sclafani and Baeza would be offered their former jobs, but he noted that those jobs "have been filled."

Lee also said that NYRA has replaced the scales at all three of its racetracks. The scales now display the weight on a digital readout and those weights are recorded on a computer.

"The one thing you can say about this case is that it did spur us to create more stringent procedures in the jockeys' room, and that we did learn something from this," Lee said.

Although Spitzer brought the case against the jockeys, the prosecution's case was argued by John Prizzia, the assistant attorney general under new Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. In the summer of 2006, just prior to Spitzer beginning his successful campaign for governor, his office refiled the case, which had the effect of pushing the trial back until after the gubernatorial vote.

Greenberg and DerOhannesian claimed that Spitzer's ambitions to run for governor and NYRA's legal problems at the time played a part in the pursuit of the case. Both said that their clients were contemplating legal action against the state and NYRA to recover financial losses.