State officials keep a $9.5 million secret Lottery winner doesn't want identity revealed to the public

February 02, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

It's Maryland's $9.5 million mystery.

State lottery officials say that the $19 million jackpot offered in a Jan. 20 drawing was split between two winning tickets.

But the officials -- for the first time -- refuse to identify one of the winners, citing a request for anonymity and an exemption under Maryland's public information law.

The only clue: The ticket was purchased at a liquor store and deli in Towson.

According to a ruling by the state attorney general's office, lottery officials must respect the confidentiality of winners, unless they allow their names to be released. It seems Marylanders can play to win -- and never have to tell.

The legal opinion, issued in July, didn't come into play until winners of the $19 million jackpot claimed their money.

One winner, Deborah Jackson, 43, a Prince George's County mother of six, claimed her share almost immediately. She got the good news while at work as a dietary aide at Washington Hospital Center.

"I matched the ticket with the paper and couldn't believe it," the Oxon Hill resident said at the time. "I was a little excited and went back to work."

But lottery officials say that the person who held the other winning ticket -- which provides nearly $425,000 a year before taxes for the next 20 years -- came forward Tuesday and wanted to stay out of the limelight.

"I can't identify them," said Carroll H. Hynson Jr., deputy director of public affairs, referring legal questions to the lottery's attorney, Andrea J. Johnson.

Ms. Johnson said the confidentiality issue was raised because the lottery receives many requests from financial companies seeking lists of winners.

The attorney general's office, which often interprets laws for state agencies, said lottery officials do not have to disclose names to the companies -- or to anyone else, including the media.

The opinion, written by Jack Schwartz, was based on the state's public information act. He wrote that an exemption covering "information about the finances of an individual" applied, shielding the information from the public -- unless an individual agreed to its release.

Mr. Schwartz compared the matter to shielding the identity of someone who bought state-issued bonds. In both cases, he wrote, people were paying money to the state in exchange for a future payment.

Disclosure policies vary around the nation.

In Kansas, for example, a law prohibits the lottery from disclosing the names of winners unless they give their consent. The law has been in place since 1991, said Carl Anderson, an assistant attorney general assigned to the lottery.

But, in Missouri, an open-records law requires lottery officials to release the names of winners -- even if they want to remain anonymous. The law lends credibility to the process, said Shelly Perez, a lottery spokeswoman.

"We hope it doesn't happen here," she said of the confidentiality requirements. "Winners sell tickets."

Maryland Lottery officials hope that the legal opinion will not deter winners from allowing their names to be announced and receiving the signature giant check.

"We're hoping people are so excited when they win they will want to have their photos taken and get into the publicity," Ms. Johnson said. "We really want that."

Mr. Hynson added that most people are happy to share their good fortune. "I just ask them to tell about their wonderful luck."

For now, lottery officials will only say that the ticket with the winning numbers -- 2-5-6-7-22-37 -- was purchased at Whitty's Spirits & Delly on York Road.

There are some rumors filtering around the store, including one that a young couple held the winning ticket.

However, even the proprietors don't know who bought the lucky ticket.

"I'm shocked," said Mary Ellen Whitty, a co-owner who promptly changed an outdoor sign to read: "We sold the $19 million lottery ticket."

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