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Commentary: Lottery panel has bigger fish to fry?

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. It’s a heck of a prelude to launching a new game, if that’s what the commission decides to do after proposed Powerball rules are considered for public comment.

"There is no doubt that you know by now that the eyes of Texas, the eyes of the nation, the eyes of the world are on this case," Willis’ lawyer, Randy Howry, told commissioners, urging them to at least say publicly whether they agreed with their general counsel’s position. He describes the fugitive clerk as an agent of the lottery.

The commissioners, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, didn’t publicly address the case, though I saw at least one of them talk to Willis during a break in the meeting.

Willis said the commissioners were pleasant in conversation, but the 67-year-old Grand Prairie man wants the money he says he needs to pay medical bills and have dental work done. He’d at least like his concerns to be acknowledged publicly.

"I've been treated like I didn't exist," said Willis, who sat for hours in the commission meeting so his lawyer could speak for a few minutes on his behalf.

A commission spokesman declined comment, citing the prospect of litigation by Willis. The state generally is immune from lawsuits, but there are exceptions or Willis could seek legislative permission to sue.

All isn’t lost for him. Because prosecutors believe he’s the rightful owner, they’ve made a motion to have $365,000 recovered from bank accounts returned to him. There could be a hearing on that by the end of the year.

As for the rest of the $750,006 the jackpot was worth after taxes? Howry suggests the Lottery Commission should make up the difference and make Willis whole.

The commission, if it were talking about the case, likely could cite its rationale against that. Instead, it's talking about expanding the games people can play.

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