A Charleston County, South Carolina, man has sued the state lottery for fraud, claiming false advertising caused him to buy scratch-off lottery tickets for prizes already claimed.
Pete Cuming filed the lawsuit one week after a state audit revealed the lottery, in a single year, sold nearly $20 million worth of tickets in 16 scratch-off games after all the contests' top prizes were awarded. His lawyers are seeking class action status, saying the millions of dollars represent thousands of misled ticket buyers.
"In essence, a player is led to believe that he or she has the chance to win the top prize advertised even though he or she does not," the lawsuit said.
Attorney David Haller of Mount Pleasant called Cuming a routine scratch-off player but declined to say how much his client had spent on the games. The issue, he said, is that Cuming and others purchase tickets in hopes of winning an advertised top prize that no longer exists.
Ernie Passailaigue, the lottery's executive director, declined Thursday to talk about the lawsuit, except to say, "We intend to show up in court and defend the lawsuit vigorously." He and the Lottery Commission's six members are named in the suit, filed Dec. 22 in Richland County, where the lottery is headquartered.
Barbara Pate, an employee of an Exxon gas station in Columbia which sold the state's first scratch-off tickets in January 2002, called Cuming's lawsuit "ridiculous." She said customers at her store spend up to several hundred dollars at a time on scratch-off tickets, sometimes buying an entire roll of $10 tickets because those pay out the most.
"He didn't have to buy the tickets," Pate said.
Haller acknowledged those playing are entitled to buy or not buy lottery tickets. But their decisions should be based on accurate information, he said.
"They're not getting a fair shot to make an informed decision," he said.
Each week, the lottery updates online the total prize money and top prizes left in its instant games. But prizes are often claimed and unavailable within each seven-day update, and no one knows, Haller said. Also, he said, many who play the scratch-off games don't have access to the lottery's Web site.
When the Legislative Audit Council released the lottery audit Dec. 15, Lottery Commission Chairman John C.B. Smith Jr. called the scratch-off findings no big deal.
"We have a rich lower-tier prize structure, and we find that most players are playing the scratch off games for the lower-tier prizes," he said then.
But state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, said that's not an adequate response, since the state continues to promote games based on the most they pay out. He said the lottery should immediately notify retailers when someone claims the top prizes and require they stop selling those tickets, as lotteries in California and Virginia do.
"If we're knowingly selling tickets for prizes people have no chance of winning, it actually borders on criminal," said Ryberg, who added he's never liked the lottery.
"But this is absolutely a new low," he said. "How can we do this to our own people?"
Ryberg is a candidate for state treasurer.
A hearing on the suit was scheduled Friday in Columbia. Cuming's attorneys were asking for a temporary order that would force the state to stop selling tickets for games advertised for more than what's possible to win.
But the state on Thursday moved the case to federal court, which canceled the hearing.
Ryberg called that a mistake.
"I don't see how a state agency can move this to federal court," he said. "This is the state's business and the state courts ought to handle it."
Haller said other lottery players called his Mount Pleasant office nonstop Thursday, after The (Charleston) Post and Courier first reported the lawsuit. Cuming's other attorneys are Lawrence Richter Jr., also of Mount Pleasant, and Dick Harpootlian, the former state Democratic Party chairman who worked to make the lottery legal.