11/30/2005 1:00AM

Pataki replaces chairman of New York's racing board


New York Gov. George Pataki has replaced the chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, Michael Hoblock, with board member Cheryl Buley, officials for the board and the governor's office said Wednesday.

Hoblock, who has been chairman since 1998, will stay on the board, which has operated for the past three years with only two board members, the officials said. The board is the state's primary regulator of horse racing and charitable gaming.

Saleem Cheeks, a spokesman for Pataki, said Hoblock was removed as chairman because "he had indicated to us that he would be leaving the board shortly." Gov. Pataki plans to name a replacement for Hoblock, Cheeks said, but he declined to comment about any of the appointments.

Hoblock, a former Marine whose six-year term does not expire until 2008, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The maneuvering comes at a time when the racing board has begun to share some of its duties with an oversight panel created earlier this year by the state legislature to monitor the activities of the New York Racing Association, the operator of Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. NYRA's franchise to operate the three tracks and a casino at Aqueduct expires in 2007.

Since 2002, when slot machines were legalized at seven New York racetracks, the operations of NYRA have come under intense scrutiny from regulators and the state attorney general. In 2003, NYRA agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement after 21 employees of its mutuel department were convicted of a variety of tax-related charges brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The agreement included a provision requiring NYRA's operations to be overseen for an 18-month period by a federally appointed monitoring firm, Getnick and Getnick.

Hoblock has sparred recently with NYRA management over its intention to sell artworks at an auction at Sotheby's on Friday and the association's plan to sell 80 parcels of land near Aqueduct. Hoblock also had a contentious relationship with officials of Getnick and Getnick, whom he criticized for not communicating adequately with the board during the monitor's 18-month tenure in 2004 and 2005.

Buley, a former public-relations consultant, was appointed to the board by Pataki in 2000, replacing Bennett Liebman, a two-term member of the board who is now the director of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Program. Buley's husband, Jeff, was legal counsel to the state's Republican Party at the time.

The board's chairman has a salary of approximately $120,000, and board members earn $101,000.

State law requires that the board's three members not be of the same political party, and at the time Buley was appointed, both members, including Hoblock, were Republicans. Buley, formerly registered as a Republican, registered as an independent the day before her appointment.

The third member, Joseph Neglia, retired in 2002, two years after his six-year term had expired. Pataki has not named a replacement for Neglia.

The auction of NYRA's 19 paintings - part of a sale of sporting art at Sotheby's - is scheduled for Friday morning, but the status of the paintings is up in the air.

Three weeks ago, the racing and wagering board sent a letter to NYRA warning that if the association went ahead with the sale, the board would ask the attorney general to seek a preliminary injunction.

Late Wednesday, Buley issued a statement saying that "Sotheby's had agreed that the paintings NYRA submitted will not be auctioned off . . . without the approval" of the racing and wagering board and the oversight board.

But earlier in the day, a spokesman for Sotheby's, Matthew Weigman, said that the "paintings are on exhibit, and there has been no change in our sales plans." Weigman did not return a phone call late Wednesday to clarify if the auction house had changed its plans.