The Georgia Lottery Commission has refused to pay more than $17.1 million in scratch-off game prizes since 2014 — the year lottery officials instituted a policy of investigating big-money winners, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Nearly 300 denial letters have been sent out to winners of $1,000 or more over the past four years.
In the letters, three of which were received by Indian Americans Ramilaben Patel, Ankita Patel and Sunitabahen Patel – no relation – the state lottery cited a variety of suspicions, the report said.
But a handful of lawsuits, challenging million-dollar denials, are testing the agency’s ability to withhold prize money without specific evidence of cheating, the publication said.
The AJC review of the denial letters found 63 percent were issued to people of Indian, Asian or Hispanic descent. People with the common last name Patel make up 23 percent of the denials, according to the AJC’s analysis.
Lottery officials claim there is no inherent discrimination in the procedures, which they say are necessary to maintain fairness for everyone who plays, according to the report.
Attorney Mark Spix said the lottery needs to provide interpreters and recorded interviews to make sure the questions and answers are clear and documented. He and attorney Jared Lina represent Ramilaben Patel in a suit claiming that a $5 million prize was unjustly withheld, the report said.
There is no warning on the games that prizes can be withheld, although the fine print does say that winners are “subject to Lottery rules and applicable state law,” the publication said.
Lottery general counsel Joe Kim said the system of investigating winning games became necessary when lottery officials noticed some individuals were claiming prizes at statistically impossible rates.
Ankita Patel, of Thomasville, was rejected for a $5,000 prize last year and a $1,000 prize in June. In both cases, the prize was denied because Patel allegedly misrepresented her relationship with the store owner where the game was purchased, according to the AJC.
The denial letters most commonly refer to aspects of the law that prohibit people claiming prize money for others, and requires withholding any money owed to the state when prizes are paid, the report said.
Sunitabahen Patel, of Jesup, was denied a $1 million prize in 2014 after she told the lottery her daughter purchased the game as a birthday gift for her on June 7 of that year. Lottery investigators determined that the packet from which the game originated was not made available for purchase until June 14, it said.
The letter written by Kim says Sunitabahen Patel’s statement that the game was purchased on June 7 was “fatal to the legitimacy of the purchase of the ticket.”
Her lawsuit takes issue with the lottery’s process in getting that information out of Sunitabahen Patel, who speaks only Gujarati. The lottery “did not have a certified Gujarati translator present during the interrogation” and Patel “simply could not understand why she was being questioned repeatedly in a language which she does not understand,” the lawsuit says, according to the publication.