A key figure in an ongoing criminal investigation over past contract practices of the Minnesota State Lottery has been found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, and gambling enforcement agents will attempt to determine whether his death is connected to the probe.
Michael Priesnitz, 53, was found dead Thursday afternoon on the floor of a garage at his home in International Falls. He was shot once in the head with a shotgun found near his body, according to International Falls police.
Authorities called the death an apparent suicide and said several notes were found near the body.
Priesnitz was a close friend of former lottery director George Andersen, who committed suicide in January, 2004. His body was found at his home the day after state auditors talked to him about their findings in a review of lottery contracts. Several weeks after his death, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor issued a report that criticized lottery contracts with a firm founded by Priesnitz.
The gambling enforcement division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety last year began a probe of contracts between the lottery and vendors, including Media Rare of St. Paul, the firm founded by Priesnitz. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the department, said Friday that the apparent suicide of Priesnitz could affect the direction of the probe, which had been referred recently to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office for consideration of possible criminal charges.
"It's either going to close it up sooner or make it go longer, in case there is anything up there that is germane to the lottery investigation," Smith said.
Gambling enforcement director Frank Ball said Priesnitz "was part of our investigation into the lottery," adding that agents were focusing on business practices of Priesnitz, Media Rare and the lottery over the years.
Auditors had questioned several lucrative contracts that Andersen approved between the lottery and Media Rare.
In a February 2004 interview with the Star Tribune, Priesnitz said the company got the lottery contract on merit, not because of his friendship with Andersen. The two had been longtime fishing buddies.
"There was never any doubt that we had to produce, and produce we did," Priesnitz said.
As lottery director, Andersen had near autonomy over lottery contracts and took a personal interest in Media Rare. At one point, after Media Rare faced the possibility of losing a subcontract to do work for the lottery, Andersen stepped in and arranged for a lottery contractor to retain the firm.
Andersen's relationship with Priesnitz dates to the early 1990s, shortly after the lottery began. Although Priesnitz sold Media Rare five years ago, he remained dependent on the success of the business, and the business remained dependent on the lottery. And Andersen and Priesnitz remained friends.
Priesnitz told the Star Tribune last year that Media Rare's new owners made monthly payments to him under the sales agreement. In addition, Media Rare continued to do extensive promotional work for the lottery, which had been its largest ongoing client.
International Falls police said Friday that Itasca County would conduct an autopsy, and possibly test for drugs or alcohol. Police said there was no signs that either were involved in Priesnitz's death.
Priesnitz attempted suicide last year by taking an overdose of sleeping pills because he was in despair over how George Andersen was put in this position, according to a report soon after the incident by WCCO-TV. That was one day after the Star Tribune interviewed Priesnitz about his relationship with Andersen and a day before it reported on the relationship.