By Bob Ray Sanders, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
When the Texas Lottery Commission last summer announced Pankaj Joshi of Euless as the state’s newest millionaire, the formal press release noted: Joshi requested minimal publicity.
We all know now why the million-dollar lottery winner did not want much media coverage.
The convenience store clerk actually had taken a customer’s winning ticket — telling the patron it was worth $2 — cashed it in and apparently left the country for his native Nepal, according to a commission investigator, Austin police and a Travis County grand jury that indicted him on a charge of cashing a lottery prize by fraud.
Lottery officials and police have identified the rightful purchaser of the winning ticket as Willis Willis of Grand Prairie, who bought his Mega Millions card May 29 at the Lucky Food Store.
Police have evidence that Willis went through his normal payday routine that evening by cashing his check and buying two Cash 5 tickets and one Mega Millions ticket.
It was a month later that Joshi, the clerk who scanned Willis’ ticket, presented it to the lottery commission, which in turn electronically sent $750,000 (the full sum minus taxes) to Joshi’s bank account.
This is simple, right? A faithful customer of the lottery wins $1 million, but is defrauded by an agent of the lottery commission (a clerk at a store that sells lottery tickets) and everyone knows the truth.
So, Willis should get his winnings while law enforcement pursues an alleged criminal that the Austin Police Department says is a fugitive from justice.
But that’s not what happened.
The lottery commission still is declaring Joshi the winner because he signed the ticket and redeemed it.
That is what Willis was told when he and his lawyer went to the commission headquarters on East Sixth Street in Austin last week to ask why the rightful owner of the ticket could not be awarded his winnings.
‘It’s unfathomable,” said Austin attorney Sean Breen, who is representing Willis.
“To add insult to injury,” Breen said, when he and his client prepared to leave the commission’s general counsel’s office, they were told, “‘Excuse me, you can’t leave. We have security here and you have to be escorted out of the building.’”
Breen said he and Willis left wondering, “Where was the security when they let a man walk out with a million dollars of stolen money?”
There is something rotten on Austin’s Sixth Street, and it is not a keg of beer gone sour.
I understand that the commission doesn’t want to get in the middle of disputes between spouses, friends or co-workers who claim sole or joint ownership of tickets they personally did not redeem. Perhaps that should be left up to the civil courts to sort out.
But in the case of a fraudulent act by a store clerk who has been entrusted to dutifully execute the sales, some disbursements and policies of the commission, then the true purchaser of a winning ticket should be awarded his full prize regardless.
Clerk fraud is a huge problem in other state lotteries, Breen said, which is why many states require anyone selling lottery tickets to be registered with the commission, a practice he said is not required here.
In those cases where a store clerk submits a winning ticket, there at least ought to be an investigation to make sure that the clerk actually bought the ticket.
Through a series of warrants, Austin police have recovered about $365,000 of the stolen money by identifying and seizing funds remaining in Joshi’s U.S. bank accounts, and the Travis County district attorney’s office has indicated it will ask the courts to hand over that money to Willis.
Affidavits for search and seizure warrants give an even clearer picture of what happened. It’s also clear, as Breen suggests, that more of the stolen money would have been recovered if the commission had called Austin police into the investigation much earlier.
According the manager and another employee of the convenience store where the ticket was sold, Joshi never played the lottery, the affidavits state, which is why they became suspicious upon learning Joshi had claimed the prize.
Manager Nfn Nick Parveez, the true hero in this case, told lottery investigators that it was he who made an anonymous call to the commission to report he suspected a customer may have been cheated out of his winnings.
Joshi’s co-worker, assistant manager Masudar Mike Rahman, told the investigator that while he was on vacation in early June, he was aware that Joshi had entered the office area on camera, turned the surveillance camera off and attempted to sign on to the secure video surveillance software two times without success.
Joshi, a five-year employee of the store who had been fired once for stealing but was rehired, resigned from his job on June 13.
Both store employees confirmed that Willis was a regular customer who cashed his checks there and always played the lottery using play slips (picking his own numbers).
A review of the store’s transactions that evening shows Willis’ cashed check and the amount of change he received after deductions for the check cashing fee and lottery tickets.
It seems like a simple case that should have a simple solution: Pay the man.
In the 2009 fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, there were $43 million in unclaimed lottery prizes. Just last week, a $7 million Texas Lotto prize from a May drawing expired.
Unclaimed money is turned over to the state.
At the very least, part of that money could be used to pay rightful winners their full reward.
Otherwise, the commission will cause Texans to lose faith in the system, and it is likely to encourage other clerks to cheat customers out of their winnings.
I agree with Breen when he says, “This proves there is a fox in the henhouse, and they [the commission] don’t know the foxes are working in these stores.”
Breen said that a lawsuit against the commission is coming soon, perhaps as early as this week.
A lawsuit shouldn’t be necessary. The commission simply should do the right thing.
Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775