California Lottery officer lost her job after questioning a $1.9 million payout
This story originally published on Oct. 9, 2018
The California State Lottery has paid more than $500,000 to settle lawsuits filed by two former investigators who claimed they were fired for calling attention to jackpots they believed the lottery improperly awarded to recipients who could not prove they were winners.
The two ousted lottery cops had flagged a $2 million jackpot in 2015 and a $750,000 prize in 2016 that they argued should not have been paid.
“It was a travesty the way they were both handled,” said Steve Tacchini, a retired San Francisco police captain and former lottery deputy director. A third and related lawsuit from another former investigator is still in play.
The ongoing costs to taxpayers stem from discipline the lottery handed down two years ago when a group of investigators grew frustrated by what they considered to be preventable fraud among lottery retailers as well as questionable payouts.
Between Tacchini and three subordinates, the former employees attempted to raise concerns about the payouts with the attorney general, state auditor and a reporter at the CBS station in Los Angeles.
They say their punishment sent a chilling message to other employees.
“I don’t regret doing what was right, but there are so many people who just don’t say anything,” said Gary Reid Galbreath, one of the employees who sued the department after his dismissal in 2017.
The four worked in the lottery’s Security and Law Enforcement Division, a branch of the department charged with conducting background checks on employees and lottery retailers, as well as investigating lottery-related crimes. Under Tacchini, the division favored an attention-grabbing approach to enforcement, including stings against retailers.
“They didn’t like us because we arrested people,” said Helen Brean, a former chief lottery agent who sued the department after her dismissal. “We put them in handcuffs. We got in the news, and that told people that retailers were crooked.”
In written statements, the lottery declined to discuss personnel disputes. It said the totality of evidence in the cases the former employees contested supported the department’s decisions to pay the jackpots.
A TICKETLESS WINNER
The case that most severely split the the lottery’s law enforcement arm under Tacchini and its executive staff involved a Beverly Hills man who lost a Powerball ticket but believed he was the winner of a $2 million prize.
Investigative records show the man bought a ticket in January 2015. No one claimed the prize. The lottery contacted the gas station where the man bought the ticket to figure out who deserved the jackpot.
After looking at surveillance footage, the retailer and lottery officials identified one of the store’s regular customers as the winner.
In June 2015, the gas station owner told the man he won the Powerball. He filed a claim to obtain it as a “ticketless” winner.
Images from surveillance video were not sufficient because the camera’s timing was not set correctly and other people bought tickets within minutes of his purchase. That meant the presumptive winner had to present additional evidence to demonstrate he bought the ticket.
Brean conducted the lottery’s final interview with him in July 2015. He told her he paid for his usual $6 bet when he bought his lottery ticket that day, according to a report The Bee obtained through the California Public Records Act. Lottery records showed that the winning ticket was a $20 wager.
“There was nothing. If the information he gave was accurate, there was no way he could be the winner,” Brean said.