A California Lottery official has been fired for allegedly pocketing gratuities tied to the weekly "Big Spin" TV show, where scratch-off ticket winners vie for a chance to win millions.
Richard Leeson was dismissed after an internal investigation found that he received redeemable "honors points" from a contract to house Big Spin contestants at the Glendale Hilton Hotel, officials said.
"This is not the kind of thing you can make excuses for," Lottery Director Joan Borucki said Tuesday at a hearing by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee.
Leeson allegedly signed a contract promising him about 97,000 Hilton "honors points" this year in connection with the state lottery's rental of 80 rooms per month at the Hilton, for $110 per night, to house Big Spin contestants.
Donald Currier, the state lottery's chief counsel, said Leeson is believed to have received a similar number of redeemable Hilton points last year, and an unspecified number in 2004 and 2005.
Hilton's "honors" program, like airline "frequent flier" miles, is designed to reward customers for their patronage.
Hilton honors points can be redeemed in the future for overnight accommodations, airline flights, cruises and other amenities. Hilton's Web site says that 100,000 honors points can be exchanged for about 13 nights in a Hilton hotel or nearly 50,000 airline miles.
California law prohibits state employees from accepting any gratuity or reward in connection with public duties. A criminal investigation has been launched into whether Leeson committed bribery, conflict of interest or other offenses, officials said.
Leeson, who has not been charged with any crime, did not return two calls by The Bee to his Placer County home Tuesday.
Lottery officials did not refer to Leeson by name at the Senate hearing, but they identified the fired employee as their director of broadcasting and released the Hilton contract that listed his name and title and promised him "honors points."
Borucki said one incident of misbehavior should not taint the lottery's credibility. "This is just one employee," she said. "I have 599 others that I have faith in. They're going to maintain the integrity of the lottery. They work hard and they're proud of the job they do."
Leeson, a six-year employee of the lottery, helped coordinate the weekly Big Spin show and was involved in other broadcasting and marketing events for the state agency.
Currier, at Tuesday's committee hearing, said it is common in private industry for event managers to be offered honors points.
"Hilton has said time and time again that this is a standard industry practice," Currier said. "So, if this person were not a government employee, it probably would not be unusual for him to accept these points."
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said it is important for public employees and for the California Lottery, which is involved in gambling, to be held to a higher ethical standard.
"People will lose confidence in government if they think that employees are benefiting from government decisions they are making," Stern said when informed of Leeson's firing.
At Tuesday's Senate committee hearing, Borucki and Currier said the fired employee — Leeson — signed the Hilton contract but did not submit it to personnel overseeing legal, contract or accounting matters.
The contract was signed by the Glendale Hilton, by Leeson as the state lottery's representative, and by Jonathan Goodson Productions, which produces the Big Spin show for the state.
The contract surfaced when a labor union seeking to organize Glendale Hilton's workers sought documents last February through a Public Records Act request to the lottery.
The state agency subsequently launched an internal investigation that led to Leeson's firing, effective Tuesday.
Currier said the California Lottery already operates a system of checks and balances to protect against contractual abuses. But Leeson apparently sidestepped the agency's safeguards. "This was an instance where he signed something he knew he wasn't supposed to sign — and then never shared it," Borucki said.
The lottery canceled Leeson's Hilton contract last month.
Hilton Hotels and Jonathan Goodson Productions did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Neither has been accused of wrongdoing, Currier said.