Frank D. LoMonte teaches media law at the University of Florida, where he runs the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed legislation last month making his state the ninth to let winners claim their jackpots anonymously. Some of those states provide a brief period of confidentiality while prizewinners get their finances in order; Arizona, for instance, voted in 2015 to delay releasing winners’ names for 90 days. But Georgia’s makes anonymity permanent.
The Georgia legislation follows a New Hampshire judge’s ruling in March allowing the winner of a $560 million Powerball jackpot — one of the 10 biggest wins in the history of U.S. lotteries — to keep her identity a secret. The judge found that the “Jane Doe” winner’s privacy interest in being free from “solicitation and harassment” outweighed the public’s right to know.
There’s a tendency to view publishing the names of lottery winners as voyeurism, but in fact, there are compelling justifications for the public to know who’s winning.
Lotteries are a $70 billion industry in the United States, and there is increasing anecdotal evidence that the games are vulnerable to manipulation.
Just last year, a former executive with the Multi-State Lottery Association pleaded guilty to tampering with software so he could predict the winning numbers drawn in five state lotteries. The scheme enabled him to partner with straw buyers to claim $2.2 million in winnings before he was caught.
The scam came to light because Iowa, like most states, requires players to provide their real names when they claim their winnings. When a shell company based in Belize tried to redeem a winning ticket in Iowa, investigators rejected the claim and started investigating the company. That unraveled the conspiracy.
In November 2016, a consortium of journalists and researchers from 10 countries published an exhaustive study about state-run gambling and all the ways it can go wrong. Among the conclusions: More than 1,700 people across the United States turn up repeatedly in lottery records as “super-winners” of 50 or more significant prizes, an astronomically improbable rate.
The consortium’s data-gathering led to spinoff investigations across the country. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism looked into the backgrounds of frequent prizewinners and found that at least three of the 13 players who have won 20 times or more in recent years either worked for lottery retail stores or were closely tied to someone who did.
This isn’t new. Four years ago, reporters from the Palm Beach Post used public records from Florida’s lottery agency to document a suspicious pattern of repeat prizewinners. The most likely explanation? The winning tickets were actually held by people who had stolen them, owed child support or otherwise couldn’t risk being detected — so they sent straw-man claimants to pick up the winnings. The 2014 investigation led the Florida Lottery to shut down sales at 18 retailers and implement other safeguards.
A similar pattern turned up in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reported that the practice of paying a commission to frontmen who redeem tickets for criminals was so commonplace that state lottery officials had coined a name for it: “Ten Percenters.”
Revealing the names of winners has other benefits, including enabling people who may be owed money to pursue a no-longer-empty pocket. In an especially vivid 2014 case, a convicted sex offender in Florida who redeemed a $2.2 million scratch-off ticket was sued by two people who claim he molested them.
Outside scrutiny is essential because the people who run state lotteries have little incentive to catch wrongdoers and even less to make the wrongdoing public. Every revelation that a lottery might be susceptible to manipulation undermines ticket-buyers’ trust. When the North Carolina lottery’s executive director was presented with evidence of a statistically inexplicable surge in repeat winners, she told the Charlotte Observer: “I’ve just decided there are lucky people in this world.”
Even still, legislators in Michigan and North Carolina came close to passing laws similar to Georgia’s, and in New Jersey, a proposal passed the legislature only to be halted by then-Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) veto.
These proposals are based on understandable sympathy for winners who feel that being outed may make them vulnerable. But protecting newly wealthy people from being pestered is a treacherous rationale for secrecy.
If we’re concerned for the safety of jackpot winners, then lottery agencies should pay for security measures as part of the awards, including coaching their freshly minted millionaires on how to avoid scammers. That’s a more sensible response than denying the public the assurance that their ticket dollars are being honestly spent.