The top lottery winners in Ohio have claimed hundreds of large prizes over the past decades, some in such short spans of time that it seemingly defies the odds and has prompted investigations by the Ohio Lottery.
State lottery investigators track multiple-winners to look for retailers who are either stealing prizes for themselves or store employees turning in tickets for others wanting to avoid paying off debts.
This newspaper examined every prize claim of $600 or more going back to the launch of the Ohio Lottery in the mid-1970s, a database that showed 13 people have claimed more than 100 prizes each.
That investigation also found the most frequent Ohio winner, a Cleveland man, has claimed more than 300 prizes since 2008, for a total of more than $800,000.
In the most obvious form of abuse that the Lottery Commission seeks to curtail, retailers have at times stolen prizes for themselves. In another method, not illegal but against Lottery Commission rules, store employees have at times turned in tickets for the actual winners when the real winners do not want it known that they have won in order to avoid paying child support or other debts. Those individuals can make a small profit by paying a discount for the ticket, allowing the real winner to avoid paying child support, taxes or other debt. The practice is referred to as “discounting” by the lottery commission.
Retailers caught discounting could lose their ability to sell tickets, but lottery officials said discounting is not a criminal offense.
For regular, individual players the legality of discounting is less clear.
“The lottery’s position is that players taking measures to avoid a court order is unlawful,” Marie Kilbane, spokeswoman for that Ohio Lottery said. “However the answer on the legality of discounting beyond that is unclear.”
It’s not illegal for regular players to give their ticket to someone else to turn in, but they could be subject to broader criminal charges like defrauding a creditor, based on the specifics of the case, Attorney General’s office spokesman Dan Tierney said.
“I can’t say in all cases that this is a crime or this isn’t a crime,” he said. “It would be up to a local prosecutor to determine.”
Edward Blain, of the northern-Ohio village of Nova, has claimed more than 150 prizes of more than $1,000 each in the past two decades. Interviewed this week, Blain said he’s never engaged in discounting but said other lottery players have told him that they avoided debt collection by going to a store that will discount.
“If you win $5,000, they’ll give you $3,200 in cash and then go turn it in for you,” he said. The difference usually covers the taxes on the prize with a little left over for the discounter’s pocket. Blain said he doesn’t know specific stores that offer this service.
Odds are against big profits
The most frequent winner in the state is Rickey Meng of Cleveland. Meng has claimed more than 300 prizes of more than $600 in less than six years.
Two thirds of those prizes have been won playing Pick 4 with about $700,000 of his total $820,000 in pre-tax winnings coming from that game.
“At best, that game has odds of about one in 2,000,” said Bill Notz, a professor in the statistics department at Ohio State University.
Meng didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story. Lottery officials confirmed that he isn’t a retailer.
If someone wanted even odds to win that game 300 times, Notz said, they would have to play about 600,000 times — or more than 270 times per day over six years.
“This all changes when you talk about the odds of someone winning,” as opposed to a specific person winning, Notz said. “With lots and lots of people playing the lottery regularly, a few of them are going to do tremendously well.”
It’s possible that the top winners in the state are those lucky few, he said, but they would need to be playing almost daily and spending a lot of money.
“My guess is that you wouldn’t come out ahead,” Notz said.
Assuming more than 200 tickets are purchased daily at the $1 bet level, an individual would likely spend more than $400,000 to possibly win double that amount over six years.
If someone has early success, Notz said, then they have money to put toward more tickets and continue the streak.
But the odds of some of the streaks seen in Ohio are even steeper.
The lottery lists the odds of winning a straight Pick 4 — exactly matching all four numbers — at one in 10,000.
Ticket’s claimed by Meng have matched all four numbers on that game 165 times since 2008, claiming prizes of either $2,500 or $5,000 each, depending on the bet. That’s a total of $600,000 in winnings from those matches.
The odds say he’d likely have to purchase more than 1.6 million tickets to achieve those results at a cost of at least $825,000, Notz said.
Cole Barker of Springfield is the second luckiest lottery winner in Clark County. He’s claimed 62 prizes of $600 or more over the years, including a $2 million win in 2011. The top winner in Clark County has claimed 69 prizes.
Barker confirmed that the only way to win that many prizes is to buy a lot of tickets.
“Everybody tells me I’m lucky,” he said. He said he played almost every day during his streaks. The day he hit $2 million he had spent $40.
Barker, a technology coordinator at Greenon Local Schools, said he’s bought a house and a boat in Florida with his winnings where he and his wife plan to eventually retire.
He’s never had anyone ask him to turn in a ticket for them.
“I owe enough to the IRS, so I’m not going to do that for someone,” he said.
Lottery investigates retailers
Lottery rules say people who win between $600 and $5,000 must fill out a claim form and can receive the cash at numerous banking locations with proper photo ID.
Claims of less than $600 don’t require a form to be completed in order to receive a payout so records aren’t available for those prizes.
Those who win more than $5,000 or who win prizes from Mega Millions, Powerball or Classic Lotto must contact the nearest regional lottery office to submit a claim form.
The winner’s name, Social Security number and other identifiers are run through several state and national systems to determine if he or she owes any debts, which will be deducted from the prize total before it is awarded, lottery spokeswoman Danielle Frizzi-Babb said.
The Ohio Lottery has collected more than $2.8 million in child support from prize winners since 2001. The Attorney General’s office has received nearly $8.4 million in back taxes and other debts from lottery prizes since that collection began in 2003.
Some wishing to avoid forking over their winnings try to fill out the claim form using a friend or family member’s name, said Such Patel, who owns the Plum Food Mart in Springfield along with his brother Paresh Patel.
They’ve never had anyone ask them to claim a ticket in exchange for payment, Such Patel said.
The lottery’s Retailer Compliance Inspection Program has the authority to investigate store owners or employees suspected of discounting, Frizzi-Babb said, but they don’t have the power to police individual players.
Winners don’t have to prove that they purchased a ticket in order to claim it, she said, and it’s legal to give a winning lottery ticket to someone else as a gift.
Lottery investigators also do random and complaint-based checks to make sure retailers aren’t stealing winnings by telling customers they won less than the total prize amount or by saying a ticket wasn’t a winner and turning it in themselves.
Thefts are reported by the lottery to local law enforcement for criminal prosecution, Frizzi-Babb said.
Since 2010, they’ve performed an average of 100 stings per year at lottery retailers statewide that have resulted in nearly 50 arrests. Dozens of Southwest Ohio clerks have been caught stealing from winners by undercover investigators.
With the exception of pending cases, every arrest statewide has resulted in a plea of guilty or no contest with most being sentenced to probation, community service and fines.
Frequent wins by retailers a red flag
Two of the most prolific winners in Ohio lottery history have owned stores where lottery tickets are sold.
Retailers and clerks are required to indicate that they own or work in a lottery location when they claim their prizes and frequent wins can prompt an investigation.
Manojkumar Patel is a former convenience store owner who says he got lucky playing unwanted tickets customers rejected because they had errors.
He’s claimed nearly 200 winning tickets since 1996, totalling more than $700,000, according to lottery records. That makes him the third winningest player in Ohio. Three of his family members have claimed dozens of tickets also, totalling an additional $200,000 over two decades.
But Patel said his family spent just as much on tickets as they won, and over the years he pretty much broke even.
While he owned Mike’s Convenient Food Mart in Cleveland Heights, Patel said he was approached by at least one customer asking to turn in a ticket for him.
“One customer had won like $10,000 on an instant ticket,” he said. The man owed money for alimony and child support, and asked to cash the ticket in Patel’s name.
“I said, ‘I can’t cash that for you, that’s yours,’ ” Patel said. “Why would I do that? I don’t want to pay the taxes.”
But the high number of claims Patel made — 163 between April 2005 and November 2010 — prompted an investigation by the lottery’s security department.
“If a winner has claimed more than one or several large prizes within a small window of time, claims will notice a pattern and alert security,” Frizzi-Babb said.
The lottery’s investigation could include a review of surveillance footage to confirm that the person claiming those tickets actually purchased them.
In Patel’s case, undercover investigators went to his store four times, but they didn’t find any evidence that he was discounting.
“I was not doing anything wrong,” Patel said. He said his store generated more than $40 million for the Ohio Lottery during the time that he owned it.
Samuel Sliman of Canton, who owns several businesses including a drive-through, according to Stark County property records, has claimed 217 lottery prizes of $600 or more since 2001 for winnings of more than $670,000.
He got on the lottery’s radar in 2007 when he won 10 prizes of $20,800 on Pick 4 tickets over an eight day span.
Earlier this year an undercover investigator went to his store to test if the clerk would pay a winning ticket correctly.
The store was found to be in compliance and the clerk didn’t offer to buy the ticket.
Sliman did not return multiple calls for comment, but told a lottery investigator in an interview last month that he plays Pick 4 a lot, sometimes twice a day. He has not won a prize over $10,000 since that 2007 streak.
“Sliman stated that he was aware of (discounting and theft issues) but would never put himself in a position to jeopardize his business or his reputation in the community,” according to investigative notes.
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