Nationwide lottery project, like Post’s, finds improbable winnings

7:04 a.m. Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 Local
A handful of people are defying logic, and the odds, in winning different Florida Lottery games more than 100 times. Investigative reporter Lawrence Mower takes a deep look.

Clarance Jones of Lynn, Mass., has won big lottery prizes more than 7,300 times, cashing in $10.8 million.

Randal J. Stier of Central Square, N.Y., has won more than 1,400 times for $1.5 million.

Rickey Meng of Cleveland has been lucky only 342 times, worth $956,000.

How’d they do it? A national investigation by PennLive and four other newspapers including the Boston Globe and Cleveland Plain Dealer found that their winnings defied the odds.

The math said they simply could not have won so often without spending — and losing — millions, and that the real reason behind the winnings “could be rooted in illegal activity.”

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because reporters there were piggybacking on a series of 2014 stories in The Palm Beach Post — Gaming the Lottery — that revealed some people were winning Florida’s Lottery too often.

Post investigative reporter Lawrence Mower

Some of the winners in The Post’s stories were cashiers at places that sold lottery tickets. Others were part of a ticket-cashing arrangement meant to help people avoid paying back taxes or child support on their lottery winnings. Lottery officials knew about their activities for years but did little or nothing to stop it.

GAMING THE LOTTERY: A Palm Beach Post investigation

Although many of the winners said they were merely lucky, UCLA statistician Skip Garibaldi and University of California at Berkeley statistician Philip Stark used some groundbreaking math to show that being so lucky was nearly impossible. Their method was later published in the journal Mathematics Magazine.

The stories led to arrestsstores having their lottery machines removed and Florida Lottery reforms. If you hand a lottery ticket to a cashier and hear a “ka-ching” sound, you can thank your luck — and The Post. The sound means your ticket is a winner; the chime was a safeguard enacted after The Post’s stories to prevent a cashier from stealing your winning ticket.

Louis Tillman Johnson outside his Pompano Beach home. He was the most prolific winner from 2007 to 2014, according to The Post. (WPLG)

“We have done a lot since 2014 to get out in front of this issue,” Connie Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Florida Lottery, told PennLive. “And I think we are probably — or we hope to be — a leader among lotteries.”

Reporters at PennLive, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, the Hartford Courant, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and students at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism duplicated The Post’s method, getting their respective states’ list of people who have won $600 or more in the lottery. (State lotteries do not track people who win less than $600.)

GAMING THE LOTTERY: An international investigation into the global lottery industry

But PennLive reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, who coordinated the project, took it to the next level, getting data on 36 of the country’s 45 lotteries.

They found the issue was rampant everywhere, and that lotteries were mostly turning a blind eye to it. Nearly 1,700 players across the country are winning at improbable rates.

This series wasn’t the first to examine improbable lottery winnings. Since The Post’s stories, reporters in 15 states, including GeorgiaIndiana and North Carolina, have done their own investigations.

And Lowenstein’s efforts have expanded beyond improbable winners. He’s been working with reporters in nine other countries to investigate the global lottery industry.

PennLive’s series is worth a read and can be found at pennlive.com/watchdog/page/defying the_odds.

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