Government Shutdown 2013: D.C. Lottery to stop cashing winning tickets

If you get rich playing the D.C. Lottery, your luck will run out when you try to cash your prize. Lottery officials said they have temporarily suspended all pay-outs.

They said pay-outs will resume, but not until the federal government re-opens. On day 11 of the shutdown, it is unclear when that might happen.

“It's so unfair that they're not paying those that win the lottery,” said Arlington resident Shaylee Carmona.

The D.C. Lottery is solely funded by ticket purchases – with no taxpayer money – so some players don't understand why the federal government shutdown would stop pay-outs.

D.C. Lottery player Bobbie Coles said, “It doesn't make any sense at all.”

Coles and many others said it's not fair. If they're paying to play, they should be paid when they win.

Lottery player Jorge Rojas said, “Everybody needs their money right now. If you won, you're supposed to get your money.”

But after a legal review, D.C. Lottery Director Buddy Roogow said attorneys decided the pay-out process must be suspended. They determined pay-outs are not “essential to the protection of public safety, health, and property,” as defined by Mayor Vincent Gray when he kept the D.C. government operating during the shutdown. Therefore, they said pay-outs cannot happen until after funding has been appropriated by Congress.

Legally, Roogow explained, he's caught between a rock and a hard place.

“The District law that established the lottery requires us to run a lottery and hold drawings,” Roogow said. “We actually are required to continue to sell the tickets. But we're also required not to make the pay-outs.”

He continued, “I know that sounds crazy. It's the last thing I want to say. I'm the director of the lottery. I want our sales to go normally. I want our players to trust the lottery and continue to play because we're going to honor those winning tickets if they buy them today, yesterday or tomorrow.”

Beyond the complicated and confusing legal situation, many players feel lottery officials should have done more to inform them of the change.

Thanks to a viewer's news tip, NewsChannel 8 discovered the D.C. Lottery – as of Thursday morning – initially decided to suspend payments on winning tickets, $600 in value and greater. Winning tickets worth less than $600 were still cashed out.

When players showed up Thursday to claim centers and retail locations to redeem tickets worth more than $600, they were turned away.

At the same time, other players continued buying tickets, unaware of the change. Once they learned about the suspended pay-outs, many players said lottery officials should have – at least – posted a disclaimer on lotto ticket vending machines.

Roogow acknowledged the policy was in flux this week and finalized Friday afternoon. At that time, he said Mayor Gray was informed of the change – that no winning tickets of any value will be cashed until the government shutdown ends.

After NewsChannel 8 started asking questions about whether the public was adequately informed or educated about the suspended pay-outs, an alert was posted on the D.C. Lottery website and a press release was sent to the media. Roogow also vowed, by Saturday, notifications would be added at retail locations across the District, even on the front of tickets.

Roogow said, “We're actually putting them on the tickets that people are buying now – that we're not able to redeem tickets until the shutdown ends.”

While D.C. Lottery officials said they consulted attorneys, it does not appear D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan reviewed the legality of withholding payments from winning players. The Attorney General’s spokesperson declined to comment, saying "at this moment, we can't discuss this."

However, it is worth noting, the D.C. Chief Financial Officer has directed the suspension of other payments during the shutdown, including tax refunds.

Like many other problems caused by the government shutdown, this lottery pay-out suspension is unique to the District of Columbia – due to D.C.’s lack of budget autonomy. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, it’s business as usual for lottery operations.

In the event that someone wins a substantial jackpot playing Powerball or Mega Millions in the District during the shutdown, lottery officials said they would advise that player to ensure the safe-keeping of their winning ticket. They would also advise that player to contact them. While the player would need to wait for their pay-out like everyone else, they could still begin the process of certifying their claim.

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