There are plenty of situations where the interests of the public and of individual citizens are reasonable but at odds.
One such situation involves lotteries.
The public has a legitimate interest in the transparency and integrity of lotteries, which are operated by government and take in billions of dollars (and pay out less than that), ostensibly to fund services and programs that tax dollars otherwise would have covered. Are the games on the up and up? Are there actual people actually winning these prizes?
Lottery winners — those lucky enough to claim huge jackpots, especially — have a legitimate interest in concealing their identity. Some are happy to tell the world about their good fortune. However, others regret the publicity, as they find themselves hounded by charities, contacted by “long-lost” relatives or targeted by scammers and criminals.
If the public had assurances that lotteries were fraud-free, enhanced privacy would not be much of an issue. But that is not the case. For examples, one need go no farther than, well, Iowa.
Eddie Tipton was director of security for the Multi-State Lottery Association, based in Des Moines. He rigged the association’s computer system and hijacked no fewer than five lottery drawings in five states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, over a half-dozen years. The prizes were worth more than $24 million, including a single jackpot of $16.5 million.
Through an eleventh-hour attempt to claim the huge Hot Lotto jackpot — in Iowa, winners’ identities are public — the connection to Tipton was eventually made. He received a 25-year prison sentence for felony fraud.
And there are other situations involving smaller prizes that strain credulity.
In a recent article, Dee J. Hall, secretary of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote about the investigative work of Peter Coutu, then a University of Wisconsin student, who uncovered an improbable link between frequent lottery winners and the stores where their winning tickets were sold. “Coutu found that three of the top 13 frequent winners had close ties to the retailers selling them the winning tickets,” Hall wrote, noting that sellers get a cut of the winnings.
After Coutu joined the staff of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, he did a similar investigation. What do you know? Many of the frequent winners in Virginia’s lottery also were lottery retailers. “One had cashed in 140 lottery tickets worth more than $400,000,” Hall noted, “including 23 tickets purchased at his own store.”
Those revelations would not have been possible had there been privacy clamps on the identities of winners. They would not have spurred changes in lottery policies and procedures.
However, no member of the public — reporter or citizen — would be able to investigate these circumstances if privacy were granted, as it is in about 10 states. In one of those states, South Carolina, the winner of a $1.5 billion jackpot remains anonymous. Even in those states, there are certain provisions, such as winners can stay anonymous only below a certain dollar amount or for a specified time period.
In Wisconsin, Assembly Bill 213 would allow winners to keep their names from becoming public. In Iowa — yes, the state where the biggest attempted lottery fraud occurred — a similar bill, House File 226, was introduced but did not advance. New Mexico’s governor vetoed such a bill in the name of transparency.
While it’s understandable why winners would desire anonymity, it is also understandable why citizens expect that this operation of government be above board and transparent. That can’t happen under a shroud of secrecy.
Thus, faced with these conflicting concerns, we come down on the side of transparency. As J. Bret Toyne, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, told The Associated Press this spring, “The disclosure of winners’ names is one way lotteries are working to keep the process transparent. It shows the public that everyday people are randomly winning the prizes.”