JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Multiple people, including one county employee, have been called to testify in a federal probe into an alleged illegal lottery contest that hundreds of Hudson County employees pay a $20 fee to enter, multiple sources told The Jersey Journal.
The feds are looking into whether the organizers of the game, based on numbers drawn in the state lottery's official Pick 6, are taking a cut of the total pool money.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark did not return a call for comment. Asked to comment on the probe, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Newark said, "The FBI can neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations."
A county official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the subject, said it is believed that as many as 50% of employees at County Prep High School in Jersey City and High Tech High School in Secaucus have participated in the "lottery" at one time or another.
Another source, who also requested anonymity because they work for the county, said the lottery game is also drawing players from bars and other establishments in and outside the county, many of whom aren't county workers.
Despite knowledge of the pool and how it works, everyone who spoke with the Journal said they are not aware of who manages it or where it is based. Also, they all claimed to be unaware if the organizer takes a percentage of the pool.
Under New Jersey and federal law, this type of pool — much like NCAA Tournament pools and Super Bowl box pools — is considered illegal gambling, but it is rarely investigated, experts say, unless the prize money gets into the six-figure range or the organizer keeps a share of the pool money.
There are some exemptions, such as nonprofit organizations that operate raffles, bingo games or casino night as fundraisers. Those groups must first get a permit.
In 2010, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office arrested John Bovery on charges related to sports betting pools he organized totaling $1.7 million, court documents say. In that case, authorities claimed that Bovery would in many cases receive a 10% gift from the winner.
Bovery eventually pleaded guilty to possession of gambling records and the state seized the bank account he controlled containing some $850,000, court documents say.
"If you want to have a friendly poker game at your house, that's OK, as long as you're not taking a cut of the pot," said a local attorney who asked to remain anonymous.
Hudson County Superintendent of Schools Amy Lin-Rodriguez did not return a call seeking information on the lottery and the federal investigation, but district spokeswoman Caitlin Mota said HCST has not been contacted by authorities.
"The district would certainly provide its full cooperation to any agency that may inquire or request any information," Mota said.
The school district did not say if it has a specific policy against its employees participating in the cash pools.
According to a county employee, the game works as follows: entrants pick six numbers between 1 and 49 before the start of a new game. After each state Pick-6 drawing, entrants look to see how many of their numbers came out in the drawing.
The first entrant to have all six of their numbers selected in the Pick-6, no matter how many drawings it takes, wins the pot. If more than one entrant gets all six numbers in the same drawing the money is split between the winners.
The county worker described the pool of lottery players as "massive" and the payout as quite large. A former Jersey City elected official, who said he knew about the lottery but never played it, confirmed the payouts are "large."
Hudson County spokesman James Kennelly did not reply to calls seeking comment on the investigation, and County Executive Tom DeGise was not available for comment Thursday. It is unclear if the county has a policy related to the cash pools.