Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lottery accused 6 clerks

The case of Willis Willis of Grand Prairie, who prosecutors say lost a million-dollar jackpot to a now-indicted and fugitive store clerk, might be the biggest prize hijack in Texas. But it's not the only one. Since Jan. 1, 2008, the Lottery Commission has referred at least five other cases to prosecutors after players complained they weren't paid their rightful winnings: two in Pflugerville near Austin, two in Harris County and one in Brookshire in Waller County. Defendants entered no-contest pleas in three cases, and prosecutors dropped one each in Houston and Pflugerville, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.

GTECH, which operates the lottery, recently agreed to provide 5,000 more self-check terminals, bringing the total to more than 16,000, enough to cover every retailer. Under current rules, retailers don't have to take them.

The 47 “closed” investigations that resulted in warnings or worse are among 164 complaints referred to the Lottery Commission's enforcement division out of 263 that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2008 and late October 2009. Complaints come in by phone, e-mail, an online form or in person. Lottery officials said they get sent to enforcement unless it's clear there's simply a misunderstanding. Of the other 117 cases referred for enforcement, 79 were called unsubstantiated. Three complaints were withdrawn, and 12 were listed as “appropriate action” taken — agency shorthand for a lack of conclusive findings.

The agency didn't provide tallies showing precisely how all the cases were resolved, which was requested under the Public Information Act. It provided spreadsheets with incomplete information, copies of investigative reports showing a range of behavior and circumstances, and some additional information in response to follow-up questions. In the Harris County case that prosecutors dropped, the agency report showed a Houston store owner paid $100 cash to a customer in 2008 instead of informing him he had won a $599 prize pack.

The retailer refused to return the ticket unless the customer repaid the $100, the report said. The player said he no longer had it and didn't trust the owner to give him a valid ticket. In a San Antonio case that prompted a warning, investigators reported a player was sold a ticket that already had been validated as a winning ticket, then was denied the $8 prize. In the Pflugerville case in which a clerk pleaded no contest to misdemeanor theft, a woman initially was paid only $77 of a winning scratch-off worth $177 in 2008. The clerk, who gave her the additional $100 when she returned and complained, was later fined $357 plus court costs. In Brookshire in 2008, a customer said he was cheated of $4 in winnings. The retailer pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor theft charge and was fined $120, including court costs. Complaints also might stem from apparent foolishness. A Pampa retailer cleared of a 2008 complaint speculated that two clerks might have been playing a practical joke by telling a customer he had won. The store's co-owner apologized for the employees, who had quit.

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