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Judge rules Washington lottery winners can't be anonymous

Washington LotteryWashington Lottery: Judge rules Washington lottery winners can't be anonymous

The identity of a Yakima, Washington, couple who won a $6.6 million Lotto jackpot has been revealed after a judge ruled in favor of the state lottery that winners cannot claim jackpots anonymously.

This week, nearly 10 months after a temporary injunction that sealed the identity of Michele and Michael Villegas was supposed to be lifted, the names were released.

The amount that the couple won is thought to be a local record. But in many respects, their good fortune was eclipsed by the legal wrangling that accompanied their efforts to protect their privacy.

Lottery officials say that while many big winners want their names withheld, this was the first time anywhere in the state that someone successfully got even a temporary court order to that effect.

"It's the first time anybody (with the Lottery) can remember something like this happening," said Mary Tennyson, an assistant attorney general in Olympia who represented the state Lottery Commission in the case.

Compounding matters, the temporary order remained in effect for nine months despite a judge's ruling almost from the outset that the names of lottery winners are subject to Washington's public records law.

Meanwhile, the case was sealed. And because there was no standalone sealing order, the existence of the case remained a well-kept secret almost the entire time.

Heidi Bolong, the Villegases attorney, said the couple has several school-age children and that they wanted to protect their privacy primarily out of fear for the safety of their family.

They declined, through Bolong, their attorney, to be interviewed for this story.

"I don't think they've changed their minds," she said in an interview earlier this week.

The case began on Oct. 15, 2007, when someone in Yakima bought the winning ticket for the Pick 6 Lotto.

According to court records in the case, which was finally unsealed Tuesday, Bolong notified the Lottery in writing that her clients, whom she did not name, were going to claim the prize under the protection of a trust.

Bolong also requested, and received, an opportunity from the Lottery to seek a court order barring the release of her clients' names.

She quickly filed for a temporary injunction, along with a request that the file be sealed and that a hearing be scheduled to make the injunction permanent.

Bolong later submitted clippings of news stories about kidnapping crimes in Yakima and a handful of attacks on lottery winners in other states as well as one in Canada.

Yakima County Court Commissioner Sid Ottem approved the injunction on Dec. 5, 2007. As part of the order, Ottem improperly sealed the case and set a hearing nine days out — to be conducted privately in a judge's chambers.

Olympia attorney Greg Overstreet, an expert on media law and Washington's public records law, said the way Ottem sealed the case violated court rules in multiple ways.

In Washington, judges are prohibited from sealing cases without first holding a hearing on the subject in open court. After that, a judge must issue written findings that justify a decision to seal all or parts of a case, and those findings, called a sealing order, cannot be sealed with the rest of the file.

"Each one of those three flaws are contained in the court rules," said Overstreet. "I'm being polite."

Ottem, a former law clerk to the late Judge Walter Stauffacher on the long-running Acquavella water rights case, left Yakima earlier this year after accepting a position with the federal Department of Interior in Albuquerque, N.M.

After learning of the injunction, Lottery officials objected that the names of Lotto winners have always been used for publicity purposes and that, lacking a specific exemption, Washington's public records law presumes a record is public.

Tennyson, the assistant attorney general, argued that even though many lottery winners are initially nervous about their safety, "there is no record of any criminal activity have occurred, or injury to the winners, as a result of the publicity."

The case was assigned to Superior Court Judge James Lust, who issued a ruling on Dec. 31 denying a permanent injunction.

In his ruling, Lust said that in order to prove a generalized "right to privacy" exemption, the Villegases had to show that disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and that disclosure is not of legitimate concern to the public.

Lust said that regardless of what a reasonable person might think about disclosure, names of lottery winners should be made public because "the monies that are collected and flow through the Lottery are (public).

"The court finds that this is the important factor," he continued in his ruling, "and that the public has a right to know the true winners behind the screen" of trust accounts.

There was just one hitch, however.

Predicting that the Villegases might want to appeal, Lust allowed the temporary injunction to remain in effect for another 30 days.

But 30 days somehow stretched on for nine months. That's because Bolong and Tennyson failed to draft and jointly file, as the judge requested, an order lifting the injunction.

In separate interviews earlier this week, the lawyers alternately blamed themselves and each other for not getting the paperwork signed.

"It just kind of slipped through the cracks," Bolong said, adding, "I think I was more delinquent at the end but she was more delinquent at the beginning."

Tennyson, who works in Olympia, said she repeatedly tried to contact Bolong and failed to get her attention until she requested a hearing in August before Lust.

"It was mostly my schedule is busy (and) she wouldn't respond to my phone calls and e-mails," she said.

As for the importance of the case, she said it was the first time she or anyone else with the Lottery could remember a court order blocking, even temporarily, release of a winner's identity.

And although Lust's ruling does not set a precedent per set outside of Yakima County, she suggested future winners and their legal counsel would be mindful that the matter had been argued before ... in the Lottery's favor.

Said Tennyson, "I would be happy to give them a copy of the decision."

Yakima Herald-Republic

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28 comments. Last comment 6 years ago by ThatScaryChick.
Page 1 of 2

United States
Member #58528
February 18, 2008
710 Posts
Offline
Posted: October 3, 2008, 11:25 pm - IP Logged

If something happens to this family because of the lottery win (harassment,kidnapping,etc.),the judge should be held personaly responsible.I don't care what the law says,people that win a lottery should be allowed to remain anonymous if they so choose.

    Lotto*Love's avatar - lips
    Washington *state*
    United States
    Member #62009
    June 14, 2008
    192 Posts
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    Posted: October 3, 2008, 11:38 pm - IP Logged

    EEEKKK! Don't know what to say...

    I think they should of been allowed to be anonymous.  One with children (esp. young ones) should be allowed to protect correctly.  And if they feel safer doing so, they should not be questioned.

    I hope I don't get lots of flack from this.  Its just my opinion.

    I live about 1 hour from Yakima, and their fears are understandable.  Though I don't go to Yakima very often, unless I'm headed for Seattle, there is ALWAYS ALWAYS some sort of crime going on there on the news just about every night..well I think there is.  Pretty much everything you can think of that would happen in a much larger city happens there.  SO the fear of harassment, kidnapping....home invasion..etc, etc is very much a possibility.

    I do hope nothing happens to them.  If anything, they may have to move.  Which isn't very easy for the children.  I hope things go well for them.

    Well, I'm from a small little farmin' town...so I would feel safe if I won the lottery.  Hope its soon dang it! I'm tired of waiting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Surrender You can run, but you can't hide mighty Jackpot...surrender to me at once!

      Avatar
      NY
      United States
      Member #23835
      October 16, 2005
      2843 Posts
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      Posted: October 4, 2008, 12:13 am - IP Logged

      That they hired an attorney demonstrates that they clearly knew ahead of time that the law didn't allow them to remain anonymous, so they were simply subjected to the rules they already knew were in place. They had plenty of options to remain anonymous anyway. They could have donated the ticket to charity or goiven it to a friend or relative who could have given them gifts later on. They obviously decided that they'd rather have the money even if it mean they couldn't be anonymous. They still have the option of moving somewhere else.

      Interesting that the story is over 1000 words long, mentions that the prize is "thought to be a local record," but still failed to say how much they won.

        ThatScaryChick's avatar - AbnSTiA

        United States
        Member #56506
        November 21, 2007
        4664 Posts
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        Posted: October 4, 2008, 12:25 am - IP Logged

        I wish all states would give the option to allow winners to claim their prizes anonymously. There are many people who don't care one way or the other, but for those who do the option would be nice. Me, it doesn't stop me from playing, but it would be nice to be able to claim a prize anonymously if I ever won.

        "No one remembers the person who almost climbed the mountain, only the person who eventually gets to the top."

          NightTrain1234's avatar - 8ball
          a Powerball AND MegaMillions state!
          United States
          Member #24190
          October 20, 2005
          78 Posts
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          Posted: October 4, 2008, 1:01 am - IP Logged

          I wish all states would give the option to allow winners to claim their prizes anonymously. There are many people who don't care one way or the other, but for those who do the option would be nice. Me, it doesn't stop me from playing, but it would be nice to be able to claim a prize anonymously if I ever won.

          These jackpot winners act like they are the only rich people in America.    Thousands (or more) people in the U.S. are multi-millionaires and while they may face certain unique problems from people wanting a piece of their fortune, they manage to do just fine in their lives.

          Heck, I would think these people would send their kids to private schools now anyway.   Plus they can hire all the extra security they want.

          Don't play the lottery if you don't want a little temporary publicity!

            Uff Da!'s avatar - InCelebration 001.jpg
            Washington State
            United States
            Member #33973
            February 26, 2006
            345 Posts
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            Posted: October 4, 2008, 2:57 am - IP Logged

            That they hired an attorney demonstrates that they clearly knew ahead of time that the law didn't allow them to remain anonymous, so they were simply subjected to the rules they already knew were in place. They had plenty of options to remain anonymous anyway. They could have donated the ticket to charity or goiven it to a friend or relative who could have given them gifts later on. They obviously decided that they'd rather have the money even if it mean they couldn't be anonymous. They still have the option of moving somewhere else.

            Interesting that the story is over 1000 words long, mentions that the prize is "thought to be a local record," but still failed to say how much they won.

            This couple did the same thing I'd have done had I won - try to pull off anonymity and hope it works.  In my former communications with the lottery office, though they mentioned the open records law, they also held out that slim chance that one might be able to get a court order to prevent the release of names in some circumstances.  So I'd say it was worth a shot, even if it didn't work.

            Since the winners ran the money through a trust, I'd think that they would have hired an attorney to draft the trust for them whether or not they would try to remain anonymous.  But perhaps not.  Maybe they wouldn't have bothered with the trust.

            Regarding the amount they won, the article says it was the $6.6 million jackpot.  In Washington State, if they take cash option it is automatically 50% of the jackpot amount regardless of interest rates.

            After I'd seen a few Washington State winners stay anonymous in the past year or so, I had high hopes that if I won that I'd be able to do likewise.  Guess that hope is out the window now and I'll have to rely on moving from this town where half the people know who I am. 

              Piaceri's avatar - sarsony1
              Wannabe Won Percenter
              Republic of Texas
              United States
              Member #57557
              January 9, 2008
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              Posted: October 4, 2008, 7:33 am - IP Logged

              What really stinks is the challenge to privacy laws. In Michigan we can remain anonymous for state lottery winnings, but not Megamillions.  It would be a shame if someone challenged the Michigan rules (or other states) using this Washington case as precedent.

              face

              singlewinnersinglewinnersinglewinner   

                savagegoose's avatar - ProfilePho
                adelaide sa
                Australia
                Member #37136
                April 11, 2006
                2797 Posts
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                Posted: October 4, 2008, 7:52 am - IP Logged

                what gets me is in the same forum there is tbhis thread

                 

                http://www.lotterypost.com/news/181247

                is that an earlier news item of same story? because it has me confused one is anonymous and now this article says not allowed to be anonymous in washington

                2014 winnings

                JAN -$48.50;  FEB  -$77.5; MAR -$18.05;  APR -$96.05 MAY -$61.10; JUN $-85; JUL $-88.90; AUG -$144.10;  SEP - $127.30;

                total tics= -$1194won= $375.15profit= -$819.25

                 

                  Todd's avatar - Cylon 2.gif
                  Chief Bottle Washer
                  New Jersey
                  United States
                  Member #1
                  May 31, 2000
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                  Posted: October 4, 2008, 9:22 am - IP Logged

                  what gets me is in the same forum there is tbhis thread

                   

                  http://www.lotterypost.com/news/181247

                  is that an earlier news item of same story? because it has me confused one is anonymous and now this article says not allowed to be anonymous in washington

                  I guess the winners in that article were smarter in their approach.  Instead of fighting to claim the prize normally and stay anonymous, the people in the article you linked to formed a corporation and had the corporation claim the prize.  Those people did not waste tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to fight the system.  They worked within the system to achieve their goal.

                   

                  Check the State Lottery Report Card
                  What grade did your lottery earn?

                   

                  Sign the Petition for True Lottery Drawings
                  Help eliminate computerized drawings!

                    fja's avatar - gnome1

                    United States
                    Member #91
                    January 19, 2002
                    10164 Posts
                    Offline
                    Posted: October 4, 2008, 9:38 am - IP Logged

                    That they hired an attorney demonstrates that they clearly knew ahead of time that the law didn't allow them to remain anonymous, so they were simply subjected to the rules they already knew were in place. They had plenty of options to remain anonymous anyway. They could have donated the ticket to charity or goiven it to a friend or relative who could have given them gifts later on. They obviously decided that they'd rather have the money even if it mean they couldn't be anonymous. They still have the option of moving somewhere else.

                    Interesting that the story is over 1000 words long, mentions that the prize is "thought to be a local record," but still failed to say how much they won.

                    I believe they won 6.6 million (first line top of page)

                    "Everybody has to believe in something...I believe I'll have another beer!"   = W.C.Fields                      

                      time*treat's avatar - radar

                      United States
                      Member #13130
                      March 30, 2005
                      2171 Posts
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                      Posted: October 4, 2008, 11:17 am - IP Logged

                      what gets me is in the same forum there is tbhis thread

                       

                      http://www.lotterypost.com/news/181247

                      is that an earlier news item of same story? because it has me confused one is anonymous and now this article says not allowed to be anonymous in washington

                      That's what I thought of, too. I couldn't find it through the forum search thoughWhat?. Used a search engine.

                      Incorporating and such, bah. - Seems to me a way of keeping the lawyers in business. People shouldn't have to jump through those kinds of legal hoops to maintain their privacy.  After the Lindberg Baby case, no 'official' should ever be allowed to say "No one could have seen it coming."

                      In neo-conned Amerika, bank robs you.
                      Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms should be the name of a convenience store, not a govnoment agency.

                        Uff Da!'s avatar - InCelebration 001.jpg
                        Washington State
                        United States
                        Member #33973
                        February 26, 2006
                        345 Posts
                        Offline
                        Posted: October 4, 2008, 11:27 am - IP Logged

                        I guess the winners in that article were smarter in their approach.  Instead of fighting to claim the prize normally and stay anonymous, the people in the article you linked to formed a corporation and had the corporation claim the prize.  Those people did not waste tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to fight the system.  They worked within the system to achieve their goal.

                        But how is it any smarter to form a corporation than to form a trust?  The winners of the $6.6 million formed a trust.  Here is the way it was listed on the winners page on the Washington State lottery website:

                        $6.6 MILLION LIVING TRUST BNA REVOCABLE, November 13, 2007, Yakima Region.
                        APPLE BIN SHELL, 3707 W NOB HILL BLVD, YAKIMA.

                        I personally think it is now questionable whether the winners of the more recent jackpot who formed the corporation will be able to retain their anonymity.

                          mpat69's avatar - Lottery-018.jpg
                          New Member
                          Federal Way
                          United States
                          Member #55594
                          October 9, 2007
                          7 Posts
                          Offline
                          Posted: October 4, 2008, 11:29 am - IP Logged

                          ONLY in Washington State right now would this happen... Mainly due to the current Governor that is in office. SHe has allowed so many wrong doings to go on, just wondering if perhaps she is getting some type of kick back off this as well as all the others that you hear about. If the REAL Governor was in office (DINO) this never would have been allowed to happen. This si the only state I am aware of that you cannot remain anonymous when you win a lottery. If I ever do win, I do not want people to know it, because you will get people coming out of the wood work asking for money. Or even sueing you, saying you promised them money. Or even like the one person said, kidnapping, murder and what ever else is in those sick minds. The judge definately be held liable for anything that happens due to his stupidity. I think we need to RE-ELECT DINO ROSSI.....

                          "You cannot win, if you do not play....."

                            Todd's avatar - Cylon 2.gif
                            Chief Bottle Washer
                            New Jersey
                            United States
                            Member #1
                            May 31, 2000
                            21592 Posts
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                            Posted: October 4, 2008, 2:04 pm - IP Logged

                            That's what I thought of, too. I couldn't find it through the forum search thoughWhat?. Used a search engine.

                            Incorporating and such, bah. - Seems to me a way of keeping the lawyers in business. People shouldn't have to jump through those kinds of legal hoops to maintain their privacy.  After the Lindberg Baby case, no 'official' should ever be allowed to say "No one could have seen it coming."

                            Um, you could always check the "Related Stories" box inside the news story.

                             

                            Check the State Lottery Report Card
                            What grade did your lottery earn?

                             

                            Sign the Petition for True Lottery Drawings
                            Help eliminate computerized drawings!