24 Lotto winners to split $24 million

Social Security colleagues say they'll keep working

March 21, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

They call themselves the Dirty Two Dozen.

But they clean up real good.

Twenty-four Social Security Administration employees showed up at the Maryland Lottery headquarters yesterday to claim $24 million. It was the largest prize in the 18-year history of the state's Classic Lotto game, and it was shared by the largest group in Maryland to cash in a multimillion-dollar ticket.

It took two 14-passenger Lincoln Town Cars to transport the winners from Woodlawn to the lottery offices. But the gawking began before they climbed into those white limos yesterday morning. For two days, since lottery officials revealed that a group of Social Security workers were believed to hold the single winning ticket, employees have been checking each other out in the halls, trying to identify the millionaires in their midst.

"We should get buttons now that say, `Yes, I'm one of them,'" computer specialist Chris Malinowski joked as the group made its first public appearance.

Make that semi-public. For, while a dozen of the winners agreed to meet the media, many asked to be on a first-name-only basis. And nine were adamant -- no names, no questions, no photographs. In the one staged group shot, these nine shielded their faces with sunglasses and paper fans provided by the lottery office, old hands at keeping the paparazzi at bay.

This much can be told: The group is composed of 22 current employees whose tenures at the Woodlawn facility range from eight to almost 35 years, and two retirees who are married to Social Security workers. (That means two households double their prize money, $360,000 per person after taxes and the so-called "cash-out" option, which allows a winner to take the money up front.)

Most come from two branches within the Office of Information Management, where they work with computers. They are men and women; black, white and Asian; parents and grandparents.

First and foremost, they are proud federal employees who pointed out to reporters that they had to take official leave yesterday. And, in case you were wondering, management analyst Cindy Moore bought the tickets on her lunch hour. Her unpaid lunch hour, the group quickly clarified.

"Contrary to what a lot of people believe, we do work," said Nancy Mandell, Moore's unofficial partner in the enterprise.

It was Moore's idea to assemble a Lotto cartel as the jackpot began to mount a month ago. The twice-weekly game had gone 35 weeks without a winner and was rapidly heading toward record heights. She and Mandell recruited 22 interested players and asked for $5 per person. That way, they could buy 120 tickets for every drawing.

Running the group quickly became onerous, and Moore regretted her brainstorm at times. Twice a week, she had to run around Woodlawn, buying lottery tickets and photocopying them.

Moore, a Social Security worker for 30-plus years, could have purchased the tickets without leaving her office. The 81-acre Woodlawn facility is home to 10,000-plus employees and functions almost like a small town, providing workers with a bank, post office and lottery vending machines, among other services.

But some members of the Dirty Two Dozen were adamant that the money had to be spent at several locations to improve the consortium's odds. (This reasoning may be appealing, but it's also fallacious. Every ticket sold in the Classic Lotto game has the same odds of coming up with six matches: 7 million to 1.) Spread it around, they told Moore. Go to different places.

And, added one veteran, a retiree who used to organize such pools: Make sure you go to a liquor store.

On Friday, Moore hurried through her 30-minute lunch, buying three batches of tickets -- 40 at Social Security, 40 at a 7-Eleven in Woodlawn. Then, mindful of the advice she had been given, she stopped at Hertsch's Package Goods and Tavern on Gwynn Oak Avenue, buying 40 more.

The winning numbers were on the 119th ticket. After seven drawings, the Dirty Two Dozen had hit the lottery, which means an investment of $35 returned to them a thousand-fold. Even Hertsch's got a share, $24,000 for selling the winning ticket.

Not that Moore knew this Sunday morning. She was at work when Mandell began checking her photocopied tickets against the numbers in the newspaper. Of the 120 tickets, some matched three numbers, one even had four. The group was up $60, give or take, when Mandell reached the penultimate ticket on her photocopied sheet.

What happens when you realize that you've just won one-24th of a $24 million jackpot? "You feel it in your stomach," Mandell said. "You start shaking real bad. I didn't sleep Sunday night, and I didn't sleep too well last night."

But Mandell couldn't find anyone else to verify the evidence of her own eyes. Finally, she located Darlene Bell, a 34-year veteran of Social Security. Bell's son drove her to work so she could check the numbers she had left there.

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