By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Through all this, Nettles gleefully documented the carnage on her Web site, but she also kept a close eye on the commission's day-to-day operations. "She really looks at our Web site thoroughly, and she finds things that may be mistakes that help us," says Bobby Heith, the lottery's director of communications. Nettles often passed what she found on to reporters. "If you keep talking to her, you're going to hear something pretty interesting and probably true," says John Moritz, who covers the lottery for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
But in her fight against the Lottery Commission, Nettles' salvoes sometimes miss their mark. One problem is that she has so much information she doesn't know where to start. In one conversation she will mention "cheated winners," "domain-name bullies" and "pseudo-random drawings," just a few of the projects she is pursuing at the same time. "These issues just keep coming up, and yes, I'm buried in them," she admits. Because her mental agenda is so crowded, her impassioned speeches can be hard to follow. "Frankly, a lot of it was over my head," Kuempel recalls. "She's so deep into this stuff."
Nettles is also, by her own admission, brutally blunt. Current lottery director Reagan Greer got the job only after the job requirements were loosened to accommodate him. The move raised a lot of eyebrows, but not many people are as frank as Nettles about it. "Reagan Greer is the governor's patsy-boy, and everybody knows it," she says. "[Deputy Director] Gary Grief runs that outfit." She says Grief "surrounds himself with yes-men."
"Austin is polite," Nettles says. "I'm learning to be polite." And Gary Grief? "He's so polite it'll kill you," she says.
The chief drawback to Nettles' style, however, may be that among the valid points she raises, she mixes in allegations that are difficult, if not impossible, to prove. For example, she says that scratch-off ticket distribution is rigged so that top prizes don't turn up until the end of the game. Another favorite theory is that when players allow the computer to choose their Lotto Texas numbers, the machines spit out number combinations unlikely to be drawn. Further evidence of wrongdoing, she suggests, is the fact that the number 44 is the most popular player pick for the Lotto "bonus ball" but is the least drawn. Nettles passes on these "educated suspicions," as she calls them, with the same gusto she shows for her strongest cases.
The mixture of effective watchdog and conspiracy theorist is embodied in Nettles' dramatic tale of the credit card-stealing employee. An inside source advised her which corroborating documents to request under Texas' public records law, but the report she received on March 18 doesn't completely support the scenario Nettles outlines. The report is a background check of lottery employee Robert Barnett. Background checks are routine for employees being considered for promotion. The report, dated February 1, 2005, contains a 1997 memo that shows Barnett was investigated in 1997 for charging personal expenses to his state credit card. The card was taken away on February 7, 1997, but more charges made by Barnett appear days later. The memo notes: "The card should not have been in the possession of [the employee] after 02-07-97."
But there is nothing in the report about sneaking into the boss' office, no explanation about how Barnett got the card back. The results of the 1997 investigation aren't clear--intriguing, but not necessarily damning. Nettles, however, ran with the details she says her inside source provided. In an e-mail sent to 15 state legislators on May 9, Nettles says that "no one ever dreamed" that the commission would "promote staff who not once but twice abused his state-issued credit card. (Recently that person was promoted to oversee the drawing studio and ticket validations. Why? Could it be because he has no conscience and will cheat on the upcoming computerized draws that people oppose or convince people that their ticket is not a winner?)"
Barnett was taken aback when he heard about the e-mail Nettles had sent. "You have to understand, we're talking about something that happened almost 10 years ago," he says. The first charges were personal, but Barnett says he simply mistook his state American Express card for his personal one. As for the second set of charges, Barnett says, "I had a trip, a business trip coming up; my boss said get the card, and I got the card and used it. The investigator was not informed that I had gone on the trip." There was no finding of wrongdoing in the case, he says. "Did I make a mistake? Yes." The background check itself concludes, "This writer did not develop any information that would prevent the applicant from becoming an employee of the Texas Lottery Commission." Barnett got the promotion.
When Nettles got the initial tip, she says, "I was really excited. I was like, 'I finally got them.'" She believed Gary Grief had seen to it that his friend Barnett was promoted despite his credit card violation. But instead of revealing cronyism at its worst, she may have given ammunition to her detractors. Current lottery officials are leery of criticizing Nettles on the record, but some former officials will. Former Executive Director Linda Cloud makes her distaste for Nettles clear. "She just didn't have all the facts right, or she just manipulated the facts the way she wanted to," Cloud says from her home in Colorado. "No matter what we did or how we did it, she contradicted everything and anything we did."