More than luck? VTDigger investigates big wins on small Vermont lottery games

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By , VTDigger.org

“Every day’s a pay day,” proclaims the message to players of some of the Vermont  Lottery’s most popular games.

That dream appears more likely to come true if you own or work at one of the state’s 650 lottery ticket outlets.

A VTDigger investigation has found that some store owners and clerks are claiming winning tickets with remarkable frequency, and that total payoffs for some individuals have reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Consider:

  • Julie Messier of Williamstown claimed $78,500 from 13 tickets of $500 or more over the course of 19 months when she worked at Rinkers Interstate Services.
  • Penny Durant of Hardwick made at least 111 claims worth $500 or more from 2011 to 2017 and won more than $300,000 during a period when she or family members worked at area stores.
  • Elisha Steele won $224,000 from scratch tickets of $500 or more between 2011 and 2014 in Windham County, where she had been employed at several stores.
  • Mark Kittell, owner of Central Beverage in Essex Junction, won nearly a quarter of the store’s top prizes of $600 or more between 2011 and 2016, including $56,000 between 2014 and 2016.

The year-long review found at least 117 retailers, or those close to them, had won a major lottery prize — defined as $600 or more, the lowest level at which the state keeps track for tax purposes — between 2011 and 2016. Collectively, they won nearly $1.8 million.

In addition, employees at 29 convenience stores claimed more than $1.4 million in prizes from stores they worked at, or formerly worked at, or from neighboring outlets. At least five of the 25 most prolific winners were current or former convenience store employees or owners.

Although the Vermont Lottery Commission has declined multiple requests to release where prizewinners purchased their tickets,VTDigger was able to determine many of their identities by cross-checking the names of big-ticket winners with the names listed in store-ownership records maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office. VTDigger also examined birth, marriage and divorce records to identify relatives of the store owner.

Upon identifying a correlation, VTDigger would then contact the store and inquire as to which person was claiming the most lottery winnings. Sometimes that person was the owner; sometimes it was a clerk; and oftentimes the person speaking to the reporter  would decline to say.

Although the process revealed a substantial number of winners in that category, the list cannot be considered complete.

Jeff Rosenthal
Jeff Rosenthal, University of Toronto statistics professor. Courtesy photo

When presented with some of the findings during a 90-minute interview at the Vermont Lottery Commission headquarters in Barre, Executive Director Danny Rachek raised no eyebrows and expressed no concern.

“If you estimate how much we gave out in value in that time period, I don’t think we’re talking about a high percentage,” said Rachek, who came on board last November after the position had been vacant since 2016, when Greg Smith resigned. Smith, who is now acting director of the Illinois Lottery, declined a request for an interview.

The commission’s marketing director, Jeff Cavender, also dismissed the findings connecting clerks and owners to major prizes.

“What does it matter?” he asked during the headquarters interview. “I don’t think that’s an issue at all.”

The chairperson of the Vermont Lottery Commission agrees.

“That doesn’t strike me as odd,” Sabina Haskell said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Lottery sales have averaged $105 million annually over the past decade, Haskell said.  Of that amount, roughly $80 million has been awarded in prizes.

Officials say that players who win a lot tend to play a lot and that repeat winning is not evidence of wrongful activity. They suggest that many of the frequent winners are merely investing their winnings in more claims.

The more you play, the more you win, explained Cavender, who also took part in the headquarters interview with Rachek.

However, statistics experts who study lottery operations around the country say that although heavy bettors can spend a lot each day buying tickets, frequent play alone is not enough to explain their frequent winnings.

University of Toronto statistics professor Jeff Rosenthal, who has written numerous papers about state-run games of chance, said that although he could not analyze Vermont’s data in detail because of the limited scope of the reports made available, the odds overwhelmingly favor the lottery.

“It’s not very likely you’ll get a big prize,” Rosenthal said. “Winning $100 more than once is very unlikely.”

Some of Vermont’s most successful players have claimed at least $1,000 on numerous occasions, VTDigger found.

‘I’M LUCKY …. I HAVE BEEN FOREVER’

Julie Messier, who cashed in at least four prizes of that size or bigger in just over a year at the store she worked at, says she’s “just lucky.”

A former employee at Rinkers Interstate Service in Barre, Messier was the store’s winningest lottery player before Rinkers sold. Records show she won $73,500 from that store in prizes $600 or more, which was nearly all of the store’s top prize money during that time period.

All of her wins came from scratch tickets. And twice she won the largest prizes you can win in two special games that had been offered by the state.

In February 2012, Messier won a $50,000 Winter Wonderbucks ticket, the largest possible in the game. The odds on winning with her $10 ticket: 1 in 33,333.

Less than six months later, she won the top prize of $20,000 in a Money for Words contest. That was from a $5 ticket where the consolidated odds of winning were again 1 in 33,333.

Between May 2011 and November 2012, Messier claimed 90 percent of Rinkers’ prize money of  $600 or more from four tickets, records show.

When asked about Messier’s two big wins during the six-month period, Haskell said: “I don’t have a comment about that. I don’t know what to say.”

However, the Lottery Commission chairperson suggested that winnings be looked at as a percentage of the payout from the Vermont lottery as a whole. In Messier’s case, Haskell said the figure would be 0.01 percent.

“I think the winning streak is so small,” she said, “I don’t know how I can connect those dots.”

Rosenthal estimated Messier would need to spend $118 per day on lottery tickets to have a 1 percent chance of winning that much in 18 months.

Messier worked at the store for about 13 years, mostly part time on weekends and holidays, before she was let go in 2013. Suzanne Legault, a former Rinkers manager, said the reason was for not working when her time chart indicated she was. Messier said she was given no explanation.

Legault said she was surprised to learn from a reporter that Messier played the lottery.

“Back then, employees weren’t supposed to be buying tickets,” said Legault, who started working at Rinkers on Jan. 1, 2013. Records show that Messier made her last large claim at that store about a month earlier.

Messier said that before Legault took over, “when we weren’t working, we were allowed to buy (tickets).” She said that whatever she won, she would put the winnings back into the lottery.

Sometimes family members and friends “get mad because I’m lucky,” she said. “I have been forever.”

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