Dateline NBC Feature

September 6, 2010 | In The News, Sean Breen

Sean Breen and client Willis Willis featured in Dateline NBC’s September 6th, 2010 investigation into lottery issues.

Watch the video on Dateline NBC.

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Judge orders some of stolen lottery winnings returned; store clerk still at large

February 17, 2010 | In The News, Randy Howry, Sean Breen

By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff

A judge in Austin on Tuesday ordered that $395,000 seized in a lottery fraud investigation be given to Willis Willis, a Dallas-area maintenance man who prosecutors say was the rightful winner of a $1 million jackpot last year.

“I feel great right now,” said Willis, 68, outside court. He wants to use his winnings to pay off medical bills, to pay the college tuition bills for the youngest of his six daughters and to buy a new set of golf clubs. He does not plan to work again.

The order by state District Judge Bob Perkins comes as authorities are continuing to search for Pankaj Joshi, a convenience store clerk in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie who prosecutors say stole Willis’ ticket in May when Willis asked him to check if it was a winner. (more…)

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Lawyers say lottery won’t pay defrauded winner

November 3, 2009 | In The News, Sean Breen

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.

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Cheated winner wants Texas lottery to pay him

November 2, 2009 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Austin, Texas (AP)
KVUE ABC Affilliate Austin

Attorney: Texas lottery won’t pay cheated winner

An attorney for a man who lost out on a $1 million jackpot says the Texas Lottery Commission still considers the store clerk who allegedly stole the ticket to be the winner.

Willis Willis lost out on the jackpot when the clerk allegedly cashed in his winning lottery ticket and disappeared. Willis’ lawyer, Sean Breen, says commission attorneys told the 67-year-old unemployed man Monday that the clerk is considered the winner because he signed the back of the lottery ticket.

Commission spokesman Bobby Heith declined comment to the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. A message was left by The Associated Press Monday night.

Authorities are still trying to find the former clerk, who is charged with claiming a lottery prize by fraud.

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Man who says he was scammed wants lottery money

October 28, 2009 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman

Willis Willis has medical bills past due, a toothache he can’t afford to fix and the hope — if not the money — to help his daughters with their college tuition.

The 67-year-old Grand Prairie maintenance man, who authorities say had his lottery winnings stolen by the store clerk he asked to check his ticket in May, said in an interview Tuesday that the $1 million prize would let him climb out of an economic hole. After doing that, Willis said, he might buy some new golf clubs.

“I am not a wealthy man,” he said. “I am a working man, live paycheck to paycheck.”

Now, as authorities search for Pankaj Joshi, who was indicted in Travis County this month on a charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud, Willis’ lawyers are demanding that the Texas Lottery Commission pay his winnings.

“It is undisputed that Mr. Willis won fair and square a million dollars playing Texas Lottery,” said Willis’ Austin lawyer, Sean Breen. “The only issue right now is when is the lottery going to pay the money that they owe him.”

Texas Lottery Commission spokesman Bobby Heith said Willis’ demands are being reviewed and declined to comment further.

Willis worked as an apartment complex maintenance man until he was hospitalized for high blood pressure in November. He had to leave his job and move in with a grown daughter, one of his six children.

Since then, Willis has worked various maintenance jobs through a staffing agency.

He said that for several years he had cashed his paycheck at the Lucky Food Store on Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie, a Dallas suburb, and bought up to $20 in lottery tickets. He then returned to the store on Sundays to check whether any of his tickets were winners before heading across the street to Mary’s Outpost, a bar where he regularly watched NASCAR.

“Everyone in there was very friendly, very respectable,” he said of the store.

On May 29, according to a police affidavit, Willis cashed a $237.80 check and bought $20 in lottery tickets. Two days later he returned just before 4 p.m. to have his tickets checked, the affidavit said.

Willis said that the clerk at the store stands behind a large Plexiglas wall and that the lottery machine is out of sight of customers. He said he handed his ticket to the clerk, a friendly man whom he did not know by name, and was told that he had won $2. He took the $2 and left.

“You cant see the machine, nor can you hear it,” he said.

Authorities say that it was Joshi who was working that day and that he redeemed the winning ticket, which they believe was purchased by Willis, at lottery headquarters in Austin on June 25. After withholding taxes, lottery officials wired $750,000 to a Washington Mutual account provided by Joshi.

A tip from Joshi’s co-workers, who said they never saw him play the lottery, triggered the investigation, police said.

Police have seized $365,000 of what they believe are lottery proceeds from several bank accounts opened by Joshi. The rest, Austin police Detective Billy Petty said, was probably wired out of the country. Petty said he thinks that Joshi, 25, who had worked at the store for about five years while attending the University of Texas at Arlington, has returned to his native Nepal.

Breen, one of Willis’ lawyers, said that lottery officials erred in giving the money to Joshi.

“Mr. Willis did absolutely nothing wrong,” Breen said. “When an agent of the lottery shows up in Austin — a store clerk — to reveal a million-dollar ticket, thats a red flag the size of Texas that something’s rotten.”

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HowryBreen Assists Lottery Winner to Recover Stolen Prize Money

October 26, 2009 | Press Release, Randy Howry, Sean Breen

For Immediate Release

HowryBreen is representing Grand Prairie resident Willis Willis whose winning lottery ticket was stolen by a store clerk who ran off with the money. Randy Howry and Sean Breen are helping Willis to recover his rightful winnings. The story first appeared in the Dallas Morning News, then was picked up by the news wire and consequently has been published world wide as a human interest story. The story continues to unfold.

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