(TX) Lottery Commission's personnel policies questioned
They Won The Jackpot
Lottery money can bring mixed blessings
Originally Posted: August 4, 2005
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(TX) Lottery Commission's personnel policies questioned
Plainview Daily Herald
Administrative assistant Cindi Suarez had just returned from a Disney World vacation when her bosses at the Texas Lottery Commission called her to a meeting.
She knew it was trouble when the caller ID flashed "HR Conference Room." That was where managers took employees to tell them that they would no longer work for the commission - where firings occur at a higher rate than most other state agencies.
Sure enough, Suarez was handed a two-sentence dismissal letter _ even though two weeks earlier she'd gotten a nearly perfect employee evaluation. She was not given a reason for the firing, and even though it came without warning, her dismissal didn't surprise her.
"There were always a lot of terminations," Suarez said. "I kept asking (co-workers) ´Is it true they can fire you for no reason?´ They said, ´Yeah, that's what they do here all the time.´"
Current and former employees believe the agency uses the threat of at-will terminations to scare and intimidate anyone who raises questions about lottery operations.
In every state but Montana, employees work at the will of employers, meaning employers have the right to fire workers at any time for any lawful reason. Exceptions vary from state to state and employers can waive that right in a negotiated contract, such as one with a union.
Lee Deviney, the lottery's chief financial officer, was fired after he questioned the agency's practice of advertising inflated Lotto Texas jackpots, but his managers say his termination was unrelated to that.
Deviney was among five lottery employees fired in June under the at-will provision, bringing the total to eight so far for 2005. That´s more at-will terminations in six months than most state agencies have seen in five years, according to state employment documents obtained by The Associated Press
For example, no one has been fired under the at-will provision since 2000 at either the 440-employee Teacher Retirement System of Texas or the roughly 38,500-employee Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Department of Public Safety has roughly 7,625 employees but has reported just two at-will terminations in five years. The 575-employee General Land Office only reported one.
Over the past five years, 23 people were fired under the provision from the lottery commission, which employs about 310 people.
Lottery spokesman Bobby Heith declined to discuss specific terminations, saying they were confidential personnel matters. Kim Kiplin, the lottery's general counsel, defended the agency's practices at a recent legislative committee hearing, saying such firings are protected by Texas employment law.
Suarez and other former employees complained about the firings to State Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, who chairs a House committee that oversees the lottery. He has filed a bill that would bar the lottery from firing any employee without good cause if he or she had worked there for at least one year.
"If I were a lottery employee I would be scared to death ... that tomorrow morning, my supervisor was going to be in a bad mood and was going to separate me from the agency," he said during a June legislative hearing to review to the lottery's jackpot problems.
Flores admitted his bill probably won't be considered because lawmakers are focused on school finance and other issues during the summer's special legislative sessions. But he said he wanted lottery officials to know he was closely watching them.
"Their legal counsel is interpreting that at will means ' I can get rid of you at any time that I want to and you don't have a due process', and that's not the case," said Flores, a South Texas Democrat.
At the legislative hearing, Flores questioned Administration Director Mike Fernandez, Acting Executive Director Gary Grief and other top lottery officials about the firing of Deviney, one of two employees in charge of proposing jackpots.
Deviney wrote an e-mail to top lottery officials pointing out that ticket sales for the June 8 Lotto Texas drawing were not expected to cover the advertised $8 million jackpot.
No one won that drawing, and after a lottery watchdog filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office, the agency decided to take the unprecedented step of holding the jackpot at $8 million for the June 11 drawing. Executive Director Reagan Greer also resigned, admitting he signed off on the inflated June 8 jackpot even though a staff report estimated $6.5 million in ticket sales.
Fernandez, Deviney´s direct supervisor, insisted Deviney´s dismissal wasn't related to the jackpot scandal, but he declined to elaborate on what he called a confidential personnel issue. He said he had spoken with Deviney about problems he had with Deviney´s work but never documented those concerns, issued a formal written warning or devised an improvement plan for him.
The agency's employee handbook describes measures that can be taken to address poor performance, ranging from documented oral counseling to suspension without pay to demotion or termination. Heith said every case is handled individually, and he wasn´t sure how often people were fired without going through any of those steps.
Heith said lottery officials are reviewing their employment and termination policies while waiting for State Auditor John Keel to begin his investigation of the agency, which could begin as early as September.
That's little comfort for Suarez, who still hasn't been able to find another job. She said she's started attaching copies of her evaluation to her applications to prove she s a good employee. She was praised for her work ethic, attention to detail and self-motivation.
"I'm so tired of applying for jobs and those people are sitting there with their nice homes getting people fired," she said.
They won the jackpot
Wednesday, August 03, 2005 -- The Truth, A1
What would you do if you won the lottery? Would you quit your job, buy a new house, travel? Or would you become a philanthropist, giving it all away?
Three local families -- Donald and Alice Holder of Elkhart, Stephen Voss of Goshen and Scott Hager of Elkhart -- have been living the fantasy since winning millions in the Hoosier Lottery. Two of them feel blessed; one feels cursed.
Here are their stories.
A ceramic angel can be spotted in every room of Donald and Alice Holder's Elkhart home. The flowing gowns and heavenly wings are Alice's daily reminder that she is blessed and that God is watching over her.
Taking in the house and smiling couple inside, one would never guess that just four years ago the Holders were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Alice was battling breast cancer, and they used all their savings to pay medical bills. The Holders had fallen on hard times.
Then, on August 22, 2001, they won $10.6 million in the Hoosier lottery.
"It couldn't have been any more perfect," said Donald, 64.
The first thing they did was pay off Alice's medical bills; she has been cancer-free now for four years. The Holders took the lump sum instead of the 25 year payout and, after taxes, received $3.4 million.
Nearly four years later, the couple still feels their winnings were a blessing. They could afford a bigger house as well as a home in Florida where they spend winters. They purchased three new cars, a motorhome, took several cruises to Hawaii, the Caribbean and Alaska. They also took trips to Texas and Las Vegas and plan more travel in the future.
But the best part of winning the lottery is the financial security.
"It is good to know if you want something or need something, you just go get it," Alice said. Now they can afford their medicines where before they had to charge everything.
"We don't owe anybody," Donald said.
Stephen Voss also chose the lump sum when he won $13.7 million in July 2004 and after taxes collected about $4 million. Voss, 56, retired from the RV industry and has laid low in the year since he won, using his winnings to work on his Goshen home.
He does plan to start a business eventually, he said. But for now he's just trying to live life without blowing all his money away.
"The end result is a lot of people ... end up going bankrupt quicker because they start borrowing money on it," and that's just wasting it, Voss said.
He has $3 million invested in municipal bonds and lives off the yearly payouts while the other million is invested. He eventually wants to turn his money into what the state initially said he won, $13.7 million.
"In the end, our goal is to make what the state really advertised," Voss said. He also wants to make sure that down the road his immediate family will be taken care of and that all the kids can go to college.
Scott Hager and his girlfriend, Jennifer, feel cursed by their winnings.
"It's a big mess and it has been horrible," said Jennifer, who preferred her last name not be used. "It's done nothing but destroy all the dreams we possibly had."
The couple initially won $23,000 on the Hoosier Millionaire TV show in October, which was $16,000 after taxes. Then, Hager hit the jackpot and won $1 million on the show in November, and says his life has been on the downward spiral since. He chose the 25-year payout and will get about $30,000 after taxes every November.
Hager has two children with an estranged wife and one child with an ex-girlfriend in addition to the 20-year-old son he raised. After he won the lottery, his child support payments increased dramatically.
He went from paying his wife $87 a week to $205 and his ex-girlfriend from $40 to $196. After his payments are taken from his Ascot Enterprises paycheck, Hager says he is left between $30 and $70 a week.
Bill collectors from past debts also demanded Hager repay them in full after he won.
"I work a job that pays me almost $30,000 a year, I just won a million dollars," Hager said. "My attorney is telling me I need a second job. Wait a minute, What's wrong with this picture? I told him he was nuts."
Scott and Jennifer moved back into their dilapidated mobile home that has no heat or water after looking at houses they thought they could buy.
"We have to turn around and look back," Scott said. "Can you imagine?"
The couple said they can't afford more attorney bills to alter their situation and feel stuck.
Despite their troubles, Hager and Jennifer have tried to help others. They sent four children to camp this summer and bought 15 pizzas to feed the campers. They also threw a benefit for their dying friend, who died two weeks after the event. But they wish they could do more for others and themselves.
Voss and the Holders also have helped others.
Voss prefers to help people anonymously, going through charitable organizations.
The Holders donate money to charities, but only the charities that haven't contacted them. If a charity calls asking for donations, the Holders cross them off the list, Donald said. "I can say no very easily," Donald said.
The Holders and Voss admit they still play the lottery.
"I don't figure I can lose now," Alice said. "If I were to win again, yes, I would help more people. Right now we come first."
Voss and the Holders don't think winning millions has changed them.
"I still drive the same old '93 Cutlass," Voss said. "I still use coupons when I shop at Kroger. I guess my biggest compliment is when I run into somebody and they say, 'Hey, you haven't changed at all.'"
But with the winnings have also come disappointments, mostly how much money the government took in taxes, both families said.
A major disappointment for Voss came when he and his brother stopped speaking a year ago.
Hager and his girlfriend have seen only bad days.
"I wish we would have never won that money," Jennifer said. "It has not been a blessing for us, it has been a curse. Everybody's like, 'Oh, I wish I could win a million dollars.' No you don't."
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