Cheated lottery winner files suit

May 23, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff

A Dallas-area man who Travis County prosecutors say had his $1 million lottery ticket stolen by a convenience store clerk in 2009 has sued the Texas Lottery Commission and others in hopes of recovering all of his winnings.

Lawyers for Willis Willis, a retired Grand Prairie maintenance man, filed the suit in state District Court in Travis County last week against the lottery commission, Gtech Corp, which runs the lottery, and the owner of a convenience store where Willis bought his ticket. (more…)

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Defrauded lottery winner to get some of his money

February 16, 2010 | In The News

From KVUE Austin – ABC Affiliate

A Texas lottery winner, who was told by a North Texas area clerk he had only won $2 when in fact he had won $1 million, will receive part of his winnings, a judge decided Tuesday.

Willis Willis took his lottery ticket to a Grand Prairie convenience store in May 2009 to see if he was a winner. But authorities say Pankaj Joshi, the clerk, told Willis he had only won a dollar and took the ticket.

Investigators believe Joshi claimed the prize for himself and fled to Nepal after $750,000 of the prize was transferred to him. He has since been indicted on a charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud.

Prosecutors have recovered about $365,000 from U.S. banks, and since learning he was defrauded, Willis has been fighting the Texas Lottery Commission to be awarded the prize he won.

In November, the Travis County District Attorneys Office filed a motion to restore the recovered money to Willis. On Tuesday, Willis appeared in a Travis County courtroom, where a judge ruled Willis should receive part of his winnings.

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Commentary: Lottery panel has bigger fish to fry?

December 1, 2009 | In The News, Randy Howry

By Peggy Fikac, Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — Some people saw a little irony in the Texas Lottery Commission’s recent step toward potentially adding Powerball to the state’s gambling lineup.

Watching from the audience was a man who, according to prosecutors, was cheated of his million-dollar jackpot by a store clerk when he played Texas’ current multi-state game, Mega Millions.

Months after the ticket was cashed in, the clerk has been indicted and is considered a fugitive. Willis Willis, described by prosecutors as the rightful owner of jackpot proceeds he never was able to claim, has said he’s broke. And the Lottery Commission’s general counsel (according to Willis’ lawyers) has told him the clerk accused of fraudulently claiming the prize is considered the winner for agency purposes because he had the ticket. (more…)

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Grand Prairie man is a victim of flawed Texas Lottery system

November 24, 2009 | In The News, Sean Breen

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

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Man again asks Lottery to end his “nightmare”

November 24, 2009 | In The News, Randy Howry

By Peggy Fikac, Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — Saying he’s living “a dream and a nightmare at the same time,” Willis Willis tried again Tuesday to persuade the Texas Lottery Commission to pay him a million-dollar jackpot obtained by an indicted store clerk.

“I’m broke. (I) have no money, no income whatsoever, because I haven’t been working,” Willis, 67, his voice quavering, told reporters before he walked into commission headquarters. “This money would mean a lot to me and my daughters as far as the holidays, and I hope I get it.” (more…)

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Lottery decision disappoints Grand Prairie man

November 4, 2009 | In The News

By Darla Miles, WFAA-TV

Willis Willis – the Grand Prairie man whose million-dollar lottery ticket was cashed in by a convenience store clerk – said he was greeted with disdain during a five-minute sit-down meeting with the Texas Lottery Commission.

“They made no offer to correct it, or say, ‘We will do this, well give you this’ or anything. Nothing to that effect. It was ‘No, we feel who brought the ticket is the winner’,” Willis said.

In May, store clerk Pankaj Joshi told Willis he had only won $2, but investigators believe Joshi fled the country with the winnings.

Willis said the commission’s ruling was more hurtful than the theft itself: “Now, I dont see how you can say that I wasnt [the winner] when its been proven that I am.”

According to the Travis County District Attorney’s office Willis is the winner, and they have indicted Joshi for the theft.

They say if they can reach an agreement with the Texas Lottery Commission, they will turn over to Willis the $365,000 they have already recovered from Joshis bank accounts.

Now Willis attorneys are considering suing the Texas Lottery Commission, lottery administrator GTECH, and the owners of Lucky Food Store #2, where Joshi worked.

But Willis isnt losing hope. He bought another Mega Millions ticket on Tuesday.

“Hopefully I can pull another rabbit out of the hat,” he said.

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