SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/Labor Agents

Lawmakers blast Jockeys’ Guild management

A congressional hearing on the insurance crisis in horse racing began with tears from the wife of a paralyzed jockey and ended with members of Congress berating Jockeys’ Guild CEO Wayne Gertmenian for canceling a $1 million policy that had covered riders for racing accidents.

Paralyzed jockey Gary Birzer and his wife, Amy,
take the oath to testify during the hearing.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations also slammed the management of the guild for failing to provide information requested by its members and by Congress, and for not getting new insurance to protect the nation’s 1,200 jockeys.

“You’ve done nothing,” Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, shouted at Gertmenian. “You’ve done not a darn thing except obfuscate and delay and go as far as you can not to obey the subpoenas of this committee.

“I don’t know if we have any guild members here,” Barton said to a hearing room filled with a couple dozen jockeys. “I don’t know what it takes to make a change in management under your bylaws, because we’ve had trouble getting your bylaws. But if I were a dues-paying member of the Jockeys’ Guild, I’d want new management.”

Gertmenian sat quietly with his attorney through most of the seven-hour hearing, as witness after witness testified that guild management had lied to them or failed to provide information about the finances of the organization.

Focus on insurance

The guild has been under fire since the summer of 2004, when jockeys discovered for the first time that they were not covered for $1 million in medical costs — as they had been for many years — for injuries suffered in racing accidents. When West Virginia jockey Gary Birzer suffered a spinal cord injury after his horse threw him in a race at Mountaineer Park, jockeys found out that the policy had been allowed to lapse two years earlier. Birzer owes more than $500,000 in medical bills.

Birzer, now confined to a wheelchair, testified that he joined the guild in the late 1990s because he was getting married and wanted to protect his family. He said he always paid his dues, which amounted to $64,000 over seven years, and was never told that the policy had lapsed. “I feel they have completely let me down,” Birzer testified.

The most emotional testimony came from Birzer’s wife, Amy, who tearfully described how she found out her husband would never walk again, and how he was forced to leave a hospital specializing in spinal cord injuries because he was not insured.

When Gary Birzer was first injured, Amy Birzer said that Guild vice president Albert Fiss first told her the guild “had no money” and could not help at all.

Nevertheless, a highly regarded rehabilitation center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center agreed to take Gary Birzer as “a charity case” for four weeks, she said. When the four weeks was up, Fiss told Gary Birzer that the guild would pay for four more weeks at the center.

“Unfortunately, this was just another lie from Mr. Fiss,” Amy Birzer testified. She said she called Fiss and asked him, “Why won’t you help my husband?” Fiss told her that the guild wanted to use her husband as “a guinea pig” to make a political statement, she testified.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Michael Burgess, D-Texas, asked Fiss, “Did you say that?”

“Yes, I did,” Fiss said. “I would like to apologize.”

Burgess replied, “I wish you would.”

Guild leadership

The hearing went beyond the insurance issue to cover the manner in which Gertmenian became CEO of the guild in 2001 after the former top guild employee was ousted during a controversial conference call of the board of directors.

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who was a board member in 2001, said that no vote was taken to replace the guild’s then-national manager John Giovanni with Gertmenian. He also testifed that five of the nine members of the board in 2001 were against firing Giovanni. Yet, Gertmenian was installed after five of the nine board members later faxed in documents authorizing the change, a move whose legitimacy was questioned by members of the committee.

Bailey said that he asked Gertmenian about his credentials to run the guild, but that Gertmenian wouldn’t provide references, saying that they were “confidential.”

Later in the hearing, Barton grilled Gertmenian about his resume, in which Gertmenian says he served in important positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as chief détente negotiator in Moscow for the National Security Council. Barton said there were no records at the Nixon or Ford presidential libraries to back up Gertmenian’s resume.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said the committee had contacted a former assistant secretary of defense who worked during the time in question, and that he had never heard of Gertmenian.

Barton said bluntly of Gertmenian’s resume, “We think it’s a complete fabrication.”

Gertmenian responded, “I was special assistant to, um, I’m sure you can find the documents.”

Barton replied, “No, I don’t need to find the documents. It comes off your resume. You provide the documents.”

Two other members of the guild’s 2001 board of directors who led the charge to replace Giovanni with Gertmenian — Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron and retired jockey Robert Colton — testified that they now realize that putting Gertmenian in charge of the organization was a mistake.

Colton, McCarron and Tomey Jean Swan, all of whom were members of the board in 2002 when the on-track accident coverage was allowed to lapse, also testified that they did not vote on that decision.

Gertmenian had previously stated under oath that “the board of directors” made the decision to cancel the insurance. But during the hearing Gertmenian testified that he had answered the question incorrectly.

“It was my belief when I answered the interrogatories that the board had, in fact, made that decision,” Gertmenian said. “I was wrong.”

The question was asked as part of a lawsuit brought against the guild by its former treasurer, Eddie King, and by a paralyzed former jockey, Gary Donahue, who have both been trying to find out what happened to more than $1 million in a guild charity, the Disabled Jockeys Fund.

At the end of the hearing, Barton indicated that the guild’s problems with Congress were not over.

“This is the beginning of the process,” Barton said. “At a minimum, we want to see the catastrophic insurance in place as soon as possible for on-track injuries. And then we are going to start cleaning this up. In my opinion, this is an absolute disgrace.”

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