A nationwide reporting adventure tracks improbably frequent lottery winners

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Lawrence Mower of the Palm Beach Post in 2014 filed a public records request for 20 years of data on Florida Lottery winners.

After analyzing the data, he found something unusual: A small number of lottery players were winning hundreds of times at almost inconceivably long odds. A statistician compared one frequent winner’s feat to picking one star out of 50 galaxies and “then having your friend guess the same star on the first try.”

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Mower’s subsequent exposé led to fraud investigations and major reforms in the Florida Lottery. His reporting found, among other things, that some players were “cashing” tickets for other players to help them avoid paying debts and taxes that would be deducted from their winnings.

Intrigued, we wanted to chart new territory: to find out whether these repeat winning patterns exist across the country. We decided to submit public records requests in every state with a lottery—an adventure in itself given that FOIA laws vary significantly by state. In all, we sent more than 100 public record requests to lotteries for information about their winners, game odds, and investigative reports. Getting those records wasn’t simple, as we outline below.

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But first, a quick rundown of our findings: In total, we analyzed 11 million lottery prize claim records covering 36 of the nation’s 45 lotteries. What we found astonished us:

  • In the past seven years, nearly 1,700 Americans were frequent winners—which we defined as having claimed 50 or more lottery tickets each worth $600 or more.
  • Clarance Jones of Lynn, Massachusetts, the nation’s most frequent winner, claimed more than 7,300 tickets worth $600 or more in only six years.
  • Jones would have had to spend at least $300 million to have a 1-in-10 million chance of winning so often, according to a statistician we consulted at the University of California, Berkeley. (Jones did not respond to requests for comment.)
  • The odds are extraordinary even for winners with far smaller win tallies. According to the analysis, Nadine Vukovich, Pennsylvania’s most frequent winner, would have had to spend $7.8 million to have a 1-in-10 million chance of winning her 209 tickets worth $600 or more.
  • Of the nation’s 45 state lotteries, 10 states (Kansas, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Connecticut, California, Idaho, Minnesota, Washington) say they don’t systematically monitor frequent winning.

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While our information requests were nearly identical, they were handled very differently by different states. So, we’ve put together some awards to shine a light on just how much FOIA laws vary across America:

The Service with a Smile Award goes to Oregon and Florida, which sent a downloadable link and a CD, respectively, within hours of our request.

Honorable mentions: Missouri, DC, Idaho, Texas, South Dakota, Indiana, Iowa, and Louisiana.

The It’s Better than Nothing Award goes to South Carolina.  We discovered that the Palmetto State—alongside Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Wyoming and North Dakota—allows lottery winners to remain anonymous, rendering its data impossible to analyze.

After discovering this, we dropped our original request and asked the agency if it could just provide a tally of tickets claimed by the state’s most frequent winners, including their home cities but with names redacted. The agency provided the data promptly.

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The You Really Have to Live There Award goes to Arkansas and Tennessee. Each of these states said requesters of public records must be a resident of the state to submit a request. Fortunately, we were able to reach out to two reporters with state residency who filed the requests on our behalf.

The Help From Above Award goes to Colorado. In March, the state lottery told us it would take at least 200 hours to process our request at a cost of $6,000.

This summer, by chance, the Colorado Legislature passed a law that required public agencies to more readily provide data upon request. In July, when we resubmitted our request, the Colorado Lottery knocked its fee down to $450. After some additional negotiation, the agency finally provided the data for free.

The Come and Get it Award goes to New Hampshire, whose representative said we could come to her office and get the records, which were kept in paper form. The woman said she was also willing to send us PDF, but not Excel, files because Excel files could “be manipulated.” We offered to post the original data when we published the project but she declined the offer.

Honorable mention: After surmounting the Tennessee Lottery’s initial objection that we weren’t state residents, the lottery insisted that reporters could only inspect prize claim records at its office in Nashville.

The Nobody’s Home Award goes to Maine, which did not respond to more than 35 calls over the course of four months. “I’ll respond soon,” one of the officials wrote on March 30. We never heard from him again.

The Better Late Than Never Award went to Georgia, which potentially violated state law by not answering our request for more than three months. It then took an additional three weeks for the lottery to go through a seven-step data verification process. The process was nearly complete when the lottery realized that some unauthorized information was about to reach us – beginning the whole process over again.

Honorable mention: After months of calls and emails without any response, the Minnesota Lottery agreed to finally provide the data we requested.

The We Didn’t Ask For That Award goes to Kentucky. The custodian of records declined to send us data about the odds for each game, but did send a 27-page document outlining the chronological history of the Kentucky Lottery.

The So This Is What It Takes? Award goes to New Mexico, which ignored and then denied our request for winners data. The lottery reversed its decision after a reporter sent an email requesting all emails between New Mexico Lottery employees about his original request. He also noted that he intended to file a complaint with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

Finally, the Send Me the Bill Award goes to Michigan, which told us that fulfilling our request would take approximately 2.5 million hours to complete and incur an “enormous” fee. We calculated it would take the agency a minimum of 285 years to fulfill our request.

After insisting the agency put its response in writing, a custodian sent an email a few days later stating he could pull the data for free in three days.

Our euphoria was short lived: the agency invoked an optional provision of Michigan privacy law that redacted the last names of winners, rendering the data useless.

The data arrived shortly after that. But our euphoria was short lived: the agency invoked an optional provision of Michigan privacy law that redacted the last names of winners, rendering the data useless for our analysis.

***

FOR ALL THE DIFFICULTIES we faced acquiring state lottery data, we take minor solace that our challenges pale in comparison to some of our overseas counterparts.

As part of our project, we collaborated with reporters in Africa and Europe who were focused on different aspects of the global lottery industry. In Mali, one of our colleagues couldn’t get basic information about lottery player demographics. In South Africa, reporters have waited more than two years to receive a response to request for retailer sales data.

Ultimately, our reporting not only deepened our understanding of the lottery industry, it reinforced our appreciation of strong public records laws-and the importance of using them to push for necessary information.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism supported this reporting project. Check out the other stories on Gaming the Lottery

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Jon Allsop, Selin Bozkaya, Jeremy Devon House, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, Ayanna Runcie, and Daniel Simmons-Ritchie are the authors of the article. Allsop graduated from the Columbia Journalism School with a Pulitzer fellowship in May. He’s a Delacorte fellow at CJR. Bozkaya graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May. Cecilie Buhl graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May. House graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May. Kelly Lowenstein is an investigative journalist, author and educator whose work has received national and international recognition. He teaches at Grand Valley State University. Runcie graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Spelman College 15’, where she earned her B.A. in international studies. In 2016 she matriculated into Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, graduating in May. Simmons-Ritchie is an investigative reporter with the Patriot-News/PennLive.com in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has received numerous state and national awards, including a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi and 2016 IRE Award.