Number Crunched

Self-Appointed lottery watchdog Dawn Nettles keeps her eye on the balls-and has some, too.

But some of those who have borne the brunt of Nettles' fervor show a sort of grudging admiration. Keith Elkins, communications director for the commission from 1999 until 2003, says he "butted heads" with Nettles many times during his tenure, but always respected her. "You cannot discount her," he says, "because as soon as you start thinking she's way off and out in left field, she finds something to stick."


It didn't have to be this way. In 1992, Nettles had nothing but love for the brand-new Texas lottery. She was an avid player and an enthusiastic supporter. She made a hobby of analyzing the drawings to see how often each number came up, a hobby that turned into a paying profession when she began selling the Lotto Report in 1993.

At the time, Nettles was already in the publishing business. She began working for a rental management company just out of Richardson High School in 1969, but longed to be her own boss. In 1979, she started a real estate publication, calling it Unexaggerated Homes as an alternative to the flowery and deceptive sales brochures that dominated the market. "I only worked with the best builders," she says with pride. The magazine survived through several of Dallas' notorious boom-and-bust real estate cycles, and at one time Nettles was supervising seven employees.

Dawn Nettles regularly visits lottery retailers around the metroplex.
Dawn Nettles regularly visits lottery retailers around the metroplex.
Eighteen-hour days aren't unusual for Nettles at the office she keeps in her Garland home.
Eighteen-hour days aren't unusual for Nettles at the office she keeps in her Garland home.

She was also displaying the tenacity that makes her the terror of the Lottery Commission. When a competing publication trumpeted a survey that billed it as the No. 2 source for home buyers, well ahead of Unexaggerated Homes, Nettles immediately suspected the study was bogus. She got copies of the survey and had a handwriting expert analyze the results. Many of the returns were deemed to be forgeries, and Nettles sent out a letter to builders demolishing the survey.

"That was my first experience with how someone can just out and out lie," Nettles says. The local head of the independent survey company was fired. As he explained to the Dallas Times Herald, Nettles had "made a full-time job of getting revenge." The comment would prove prophetic.

Despite the victory, Nettles was still facing a tight housing market and increasing competition, so the Lotto Report looked like a less stressful alternative. "Like a dumbass, I said to myself, 'Here's something I could do and not have to worry about,'" she says.

At first, she was right. Lottery sales were skyrocketing, and so was the Lotto Report's readership. Soon Nettles was selling 10,000 copies of each biweekly edition at $1.50 each in grocery and convenience stores. But as lottery sales began to slow in 1997, following a pattern of state lotteries across the country, more copies were staying in the racks. Nettles began to rely on less profitable but more reliable mail subscribers. She also began to spend more time working on her Web site, LottoReport.com.

"She was probably a blogger before the term was coined," says Moritz of the Star-Telegram. Nettles took computer courses at Richland College and put the knowledge to use. She posted page after page detailing the upheavals at the commission but still thought of the site as primarily a lottery player's tool.

All that ended with the four balls. "When they added the four balls--that's when the war began," Nettles says. The balls in question were Lotto Texas balls 51 through 54, and their addition to the game was first proposed in September 1999. Adding extra balls would generate bigger, more exciting jackpots--and increase the odds against winning one from one-in-15.8 million to 1-in-25.8 million. Nettles immediately set about defeating the proposal.

"At that time I didn't know you could go up there [to the commission] and comment," Nettles recalls. "I didn't know they were just real people up there like you and me. I just knew those four extra balls would kill Texas Lotto and it would kill the Lotto Report." She posted a form on her Web site to encourage readers to send comments to the commission, and they did, by the hundreds.

Before the commission could even vote on the proposal, then-director Linda Cloud withdrew it. "One point where there was no misunderstanding is a single message we have heard loud and clear, and that is 'Don't mess with Lotto Texas,'" Cloud said at a news conference. "I want to assure the public and all of our players that message has not been ignored."

Indeed, the commission did not ignore player opinion--it simply countered it. The rule change was proposed again six months later, backed by a survey of retailers that showed 90 percent favored the change to 54 balls. Nettles, on familiar ground, responded with handwriting analysis showing that most of the returns in the survey had been filled out by just four people. She also got records to show that only eight of 515 comments received by the commission favored the change, and revealed that the commission had already bought the new 54-ball sets.

The rule passed unanimously.

"[Nettles'] opinion didn't have anything to do with that delay," Cloud contends. "It was a matter of refocusing how we were going to go about adding the four balls."

For Nettles, the memory is still bitter. "They patted me on the back and said, 'See, Dawn? We really do listen,'" she says. "All that shit."

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