Who won the lot­tery? Why some states al­low win­ners se­crecy

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL - By Re­becca San­tana and Jef­frey Collins

SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. — Like the lo­ca­tion of Jimmy Hoffa’s body, the se­cret for­mula for Coca-Cola and the pos­si­bil­ity of aliens in outer space, the iden­tity of the win­ner of the sec­ond­biggest lot­tery in Amer­i­can his­tory may re­main hid­den for­ever — be­cause of where the per­son bought the ticket.

South Carolina, where some­one pur­chased a ticket worth $1.537 bil­lion at a con­ve­nience store , is one of a hand­ful of states that play Mega Mil­lions and al­low win­ners to be anony­mous. Lot­tery jack­pots are of­ten syn­ony­mous with dazed win­ners hold­ing an over­sized check, but of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers say anonymity can pro­tect win­ners from be­ing tar­geted by crim­i­nals and other un­scrupu­lous peo­ple ask­ing them for money.

“Ev­ery­thing we do we try to cre­ate a win­ner, whether it is ed­u­ca­tion, whether it is a re­tailer, whether it is a player. Why do you want a player who is a win­ner and now he be­comes a loser be­cause his name is out there?” said South Carolina Ed­u­ca­tion Lot­tery Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Tony Cooper in ex­plain­ing the board’s pol­icy of al­low­ing win­ners to claim prizes anony­mously.

If some­one thinks it’s best for their safety or san­ity to not be named pub­licly, Cooper says the agency would re­spect that de­ci­sion. And they have in the past. Cooper said the agency suc­cess­fully fought off a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest for iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about win­ners in­clud­ing the win­ner of a nearly $400 mil­lion Power­ball jack­pot in Lex­ing­ton County in Septem­ber 2013.

Delaware, Ge­or­gia, Kansas, Mary­land, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas all al­low anonymity to Mega Mil­lions win­ners. In Ari­zona, peo­ple who win more than $600 can keep their names se­cret for 90 days af­ter claim­ing prizes, but af­ter that names are pub­lic record. In Michi­gan, win­ners are anony­mous un­less they win Mega Mil­lions or Power­ball prizes.

Some states have had this pol­icy since their pro­grams started, and gen­er­ally ap­ply the anonymity rule not just to the Mega Mil­lions but other games as well.

Ge­or­gia is one of the most re­cent states to let jack­pot win­ners pass on let­ting their names be pub­li­cized. State Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Steve Hen­son, a Demo­crat from Stone Moun­tain, pro­posed the change and it was signed into law this year. Any­one who wins a jack­pot of $250,000 or more can opt to be anony­mous.

Hen­son said he took the step af­ter a con­stituent — who hadn’t won any­thing but was pre­par­ing for the fu­ture — wor­ried he’d have to move or dis­ap­pear if he won the lot­tery. So far, 74 peo­ple in the state have won $250,000 or more and all have re­quested anonymity, Hen­son said.

“I have not met one per­son who didn’t think it was a good idea. Espe­cially with those large win­nings on the table,” he said. “They were grate­ful they could keep their name con­fi­den­tial.”

In Texas, leg­is­la­tors last year changed the law to al­low win­ners of jack­pots $1 mil­lion or more to re­main anony­mous.

Ari­zona has a slightly mod­i­fied ap­proach. Ari­zona leg­is­la­tor John Ka­vanagh tried in 2013 to get a law passed let­ting win­ners re­main anony­mous. A com­pro­mise in 2015 gives win­ners 90 days be­fore their names are sub­ject to pub­lic records re­quests. He pushed for the changes af­ter a res­i­dent in his town won a jack­pot.

“I re­mem­ber say­ing to my­self ‘That’s fan­tas­tic, but I’d be wor­ried about my chil­dren be­ing kid­napped or peo­ple hit­ting me up for loans,’” he said. “It’s just gos­sipy, un­nec­es­sary knowl­edge for the pub­lic to have. It’s no­body’s busi­ness.”

Pro­po­nents of pub­li­ciz­ing the win­ners’ names gen­er­ally say it main­tains the in­tegrity of the games and it’s a mat­ter of govern­ment trans­parency. When Texas made its change last year, the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Foun­da­tion of Texas op­posed it.

“Our po­si­tion was just that if it is a sub­stan­tial amount of pub­lic money be­ing paid out then it needs to be trans­par­ent and it needs to be open,” said Kel­ley Shan­non, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

In New Hamp­shire, lot­tery of­fi­cials ar­gued that a woman who won a Power­ball jack­pot worth nearly $560 mil­lion should be iden­ti­fied to en­sure the pub­lic she’s a “bona fide” lot­tery par­tic­i­pant and “real” win­ner. But a judge in March ruled that the woman could re­main anony­mous, not­ing that if her iden­tity was re­vealed, she could be sub­ject to ha­rass­ment and so­lic­i­ta­tion. New Hamp­shire al­lows trusts to anony­mously claim lot­tery prizes.

And hav­ing that per­son wav­ing a big check at a news con­fer­ence for all the world to see? It also drives in­ter­est in the games.

Ver­non Kirk heads the Delaware Lot­tery. In 1988, the state changed their rules to al­low anonymity af­ter con­stituents com­plained to a leg­is­la­tor that peo­ple were bug­ging them af­ter their names were re­leased, he said. Now al­most ev­ery­one chooses anonymity.

“It’s very rare that some­body gives us per­mis­sion to use their name. We would like to use their name. Peo­ple like to know who wins prizes but it’s over­whelm­ingly peo­ple want to re­main anony­mous. We re­spect their wishes.”

San­tana re­ported from New Or­leans.

AP-Sue Ogrocki /

A cus­tomer, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, dis­plays the $200.00 worth of Mega Mil­lions tick­ets he bought at Down­town Plaza con­ve­nience store in Oklahoma City, last Tues­day.

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