May 1, 2009, 2:50 pm
Some of the same people who sell North Carolina Education Lottery tickets are winning big and winning often — and that makes some people suspicious.
Of the lottery retailers winning prizes, some are amassing significant jackpots repeatedly — $100,000, $300,000, and $500,000 prizes — dozens of times a year.
Is it just dumb luck? Or do these insiders have some kind of inside track? And what is the state doing about it?
A regular lottery player first brought the pattern of retailers winning the lottery to the attention of the NewsChannel 36 I-Team. Since then the I-team has pored over thousands of records of lottery winnings in spreadsheets obtained from the lottery under the Open Records Act. Some winners clearly stand out.
Brenda Pope lives near Salisbury and plays the lottery every week. She closely watches the list of winners updated daily online. "I noticed that the same names seemed to be popping up all the time," Pope says.
Some retailers — the same people selling the lottery tickets — are winning multiple jackpots. "It's kind of like being struck by lightning five, six, seven times," she says.
One case in point: the B&S Variety store, a small convenience market located just off Interstate 40 near Morganton. The owner of the store, Becky Ozmun, won a dozen jackpots in about 13 months — including a $10,000 payout and a $150,000 prize.
"There's no secret," Ozmun says from behind the counter, "I just scratch 'em off." Ozmun says it's just luck. When asked if it's fair for owners to play the game, she replies, "My money's as good as anybody else's." She flatly denies owners have any advantage over any other player.
It's perfectly legal for retailers like Becky Ozmun to play the lottery in North Carolina and every other state in the U.S. which collectively rake in billions in the name of education. And she's hardly the only store owner who sells tickets who has won big jackpots.
Since January of 2008 — when the NC Lottery began asking winners to declare whether they were retailers or employed by retailers — at least 462 retailers have told the state they won jackpots over $600 each. At least 70 won more than once according to state records.
But these numbers depend on how forthcoming owners and clerks are when they answer the form. State lottery officials can check owners' forms against a database of social security numbers — unavailable to the public — but it's harder to pin down just who's working behind the counter at a convenience mart selling lottery tickets.
Repeat winner Becky Ozmun says it's a pretty simple process, "You just fill out a form. They ask you what you're going to do with the money."
Buried in thousands of records of winners are other retailers — store owners winning $100,000 $300,000 and almost $500,000.
And the reports show multiple winners. One employee of a store selling tickets in eastern North Carolina won 10 times in a little over a year — including a $100,000 jackpot.
An employee at a retailer south of Asheboro — himself the son of the owner — won 27 times, mostly in the Pick 3 game. Another family member at the same store won 39 times — all at the family's business.
Tell that to Brenda Pope — the tipster who first raised the question about retailers winning in North Carolina — and she says "I can't believe someone is that lucky."
But mention repeat winners to Tom Shaheen, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Education Lottery, and he says, "Anything in life can happen."
Shaheen doesn't see a big problem. "If there were thousands of cases of this I would say yes there is a problem." But Shaheen says retailers win a lot because they play a lot. "We have had retailers that have won multiple times but no different from other players," he says.
Shaheen says the Lottery investigates complaints to its complaint line. But unlike some states North Carolina does not conduct stings to catch dishonest clerks.
In an infamous case in Camarillo, California, security camera video records the moment when a store clerk sets aside a ticket worth $500,000, never informing the customer in front of him that he's just won.
"That clerk tried to claim it," says Bill Hertoghe, chief investigator for the California Lottery. "Because of video evidence we're able to determine it was a theft."
But when Shaheen is asked about North Carolina clerks who pay the wrong amount on a ticket, he says "We pay the player the difference and we charge back the retailer." California more aggressively pursues such cases for possible prosecution.
As Becky Ozmun answers questions about her winning streak, her husband Shelby chimes in about what can happen if clerks pay the wrong amount on a winning ticket. "What are they going to do if they catch you? 'Oh — I'm sorry — I misread it' or whatever."
Both Ozmuns say they're honest, won every jackpot fair and square, and will even alert winners to jackpots they haven't noticed. They say that's why B&S Variety is the number two lottery seller in the western region, which includes Asheville.
But Shelby Ozmun's comment — "What are they going to do if they catch you?" — speaks to the enforcement climate in North Carolina.
California scrutinizes repeat winners. When asked what he would do if he saw a store owner in California win a dozen times, investigator Bill Hertoghe says, "We would subject that person to a claims investigation every time they submitted a claim."
There's little evidence Becky Ozmun has been through such an investigation. When asked if lottery investigators ever came to her store to verify she was the one that bought the winning ticket, Becky Ozmun says, "No. Just sign the paper over in Raleigh."
It's enough to make a regular player like Brenda Pope suspicious.
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