Sunday, 25 March 2007

Lotto replay

In June of 1988, Toronto Sun reporter John Schmied took a call from a lab technician.

That call would eventually lead to the withdrawal of 12 million scratch-and-win lottery tickets and the resignation of an Ontario Lottery Corporation president.

What the York Region lab technician told Schmied was he could use an industrial x-ray machine to detect winning Money Match and Double Dollars tickets before they were scratched. He had called the OLC but was dismissed as a "crank."

Schmied, skeptical at first, arranged for a live demonstration and excitedly returned to the Sun newsroom with proof that it could be done.

This blogger was writing the Luck of the Draw lottery column at the time, so a couple of Johns teamed up for a series of x-ray tests and exclusive stories on the faulty tickets.

Other media initially downplayed the story. One Toronto television report from a dentist's office dismissed the x-ray theory after trying to read tickets with a dental x-ray machine.

But when our test after test revealed positive x-ray results, CFRB talk show host Ed Needham put the Ontario Lottery Corp. reps on the hot seat and repeatedly asked why they would not witness the Sun's tests and accept the results.

The OLC repeatedly said it would do its own independent tests, which were slow in coming. Meanwhile, the $2 tickets with prizes of up to $50,000 were still on sale.

The OLC was acting like an arrogant private business, dismissing numerous calls for a ticket recall and a full investigation.

The Toronto Sun, following several successful x-ray test sessions, took its story to Mike Farnan, the provincial NDP critic for tourism and recreation, the ministry in control of lotteries.

Farnan, impressed with the test results he witnessed and critical of the OLC's handling of the security breach, called a Queen's Park press conference for 1 p.m. June 14.

On the morning of the press conference, the OLC announced a recall of 12 million Money Match and Double Dollar tickets saying it had duplicated the Sun's x-ray tests.

During the press conference, Farnan, surrounded by reporters and photographers, announced the x-rayed prize values of two Money Match tickets and two Double Dollars tickets with 100% accuracy.

OLC president Norman Morris, who told Ed Needham he had doubts about the Sun's testing only hours before he announced the recall, tendered his resignation days later.

The series of lottery ticket stories earned the two Johns an Edward Dunlop Honourable Mention Award (we lost to George Gross and his series on shamed runner Ben Johnson.)

What stuck with this lottery columnist was the OLC's arrogance in dealing with the media and its reluctance to concede there was a breach in ticket security.

After making my exit in 1994 in the first round of voluntary buyout offers, the Sun decided to drop the Luck of the Draw column, which was Toronto's only weekly lottery watchdog.

That decision probably brought a sigh of relief from OLC reps, who tend to be extremely evasive and publicity-shy when anything negative is said about the OLC.

The talented John Schmied made his exit from the Sun less amicably several years later. He was among the first of the 80 Sun layoff victims.

Now, almost 20 years later, thanks to several investigative pieces by The Fifth Estate, another OLC (now the OLG), president has resigned (and there has been another ticket recall - a million instant win Super Bingo tickets.)

Duncan Brown resigned Friday as the release of a provincial ombudsman prepared to release a report into allegations of lottery ticket theft, fraud and coverups.

Maybe the report will coax the Ontario Lottery Corporation-cum-Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. into becoming a less arrogant and more open Crown corporation.

The Toronto Sun did its job in 1988 and The Fifth Estate did its job in 2006/07. Who knows how many people were the benefactors of faulty tickets and ticket thefts in the interim.

The OLG, a pot of gold for the provincial government since 1975, needs to be revamped and operated as an open book to satisfy ticket buyers who have lost faith in the system.

As Mike Farnan told the legislature in 1988: "The public demands that if there is going to be a lottery, it must be above reproach."

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