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."