By Isadora Vail, Austin American-Statesman
Texas Lottery officials Monday told a Grand Prairie man who said his million-dollar lottery ticket was stolen by a store clerk that even though the clerk didn’t play fair, by state rules, the clerk is the winner.
Willis Willis, a 67-year-old maintenance man, said his winning ticket was stolen after he asked a store clerk to check his numbers. Prosecutors say the ticket was signed and cashed in by 25-year-old Pankaj Joshi, who was indicted in Travis County last month on a charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud and who is considered a fugitive.
But lottery officials told Willis that a ticket is considered a bearer instrument, making whoever signs and presents the ticket to the Texas Lottery Commission the winner, said Sean Breen, an attorney for Willis.
“If a lottery agent can show up and collect a prize, with no oversight and no recourse, then the Texas lottery is a sham,” Breen said.
The lawyer said he and Willis met with the Lottery Commission’s general counsel Monday. The commissioners appear to be critical of Mr. Willis for not signing his ticket, but that is not a rule.
Lottery representatives could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Travis County Assistant District Attorney Patricia H. Robertson, who is prosecuting the case, said her office is working with federal authorities and Interpol to locate Joshi.
“We hope to return the stolen funds to Mr. Willis,” she said. “Mr. Willis is the rightful owner of the funds that we seized from Mr. Joshi’s accounts.”
According to Texas Lottery rules, a winning ticket can be claimed through the mail, at local claim centers or at the Texas Lottery Commission headquarters, at 611 E. Sixth St. in Austin. The mail option is the only one that requires a signature on the ticket, according to the lottery’s Web site.
“When Mr. Willis heard that he wasn’t going to be receiving any of the money he won, he said it was like losing all the money all over again,” Breen said. “This is a huge blow to the integrity of the Texas state lottery.”
Willis bought $20 in lottery tickets May 29 in a Lucky Food Store on Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie, according to a police affidavit. Willis returned a couple of days later and asked the attendant to check the tickets for him.
Authorities said the attendant, Joshi, told Willis that he won only $2. Willis took the money and left the store.
On June 25, Joshi redeemed the winning ticket, which officials believe Willis originally bought, at lottery headquarters in Austin. Officials wired $750,000 into Joshi’s bank account.
Police investigated after Joshi’s co-workers told authorities that they had never seen him play the lottery.
Breen said money seized by the district attorneys office, about $365,000, has not been awarded to Willis. Breen said he plans to file a court order for that money and will seek special permission from the Legislature to help Willis redeem his winnings.
Austin police Detective Billy Petty said the rest of the winnings were probably wired out of the country. Petty said he thinks that Joshi, who had worked at the store for about five years while a student at University of Texas at Arlington, has gone to his native Nepal.
Breen said fraud by lottery agent clerks is not anything new in Texas. “But we’ve reached new heights in the magnitude of what they are stealing, and the lottery is well aware of this security problem.”
Additional material from the San Antonio Express-News.