By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Told Ya So
At last, someone is listening to Texas Lottery watchdog Dawn Nettles It would seem that Dawn Nettles could rest for once. The tenacious critic of the Texas Lottery was for years a lone voice proclaiming the error of the Lottery Commission's ways to all who would listen (see "Number Crunched," by Rick Kennedy, June 2). Only nobody seemed to be--until June 6.
That was the day Nettles filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General's Office alleging that the commission was advertising an $8 million jackpot that it couldn't deliver for the June 8 drawing. Nettles had made similar false-advertising charges for other drawings before, in letters to state legislators and lottery commissioners. But this time her complaint gained some traction.
The next week, Senator Jane Nelson, a Lewisville Republican, added her voice to Nettles'. Then the Fort Worth Star-Telegramdid a story, and the floodgates opened. The resulting deluge swept lottery Executive Director Reagan Greer out of office, and suddenly the press was clamoring for Nettles' services. "I can't even tell you how many [interviews] I've done," Nettles says.
In a bid to regain some credibility, the Lottery Commission also came calling, asking Nettles to join the search committee for Greer's successor. After initially accepting, Nettles backed out because the post would conflict with the independence of her lottery Web site, the Lotto Report.
Following the jackpot revelations, reporters have picked up on other themes that Nettles has championed on www.lottoreport.com. Commission financial director Lee Deviney was fired just after he echoed Nettles' concern about the jackpot numbers, sparking a flurry of interest into possible abuses of the "at-will" employment policy, which means that employees can be fired without being told the reason. "I've been screaming about this for years," Nettles says about questionable firings. "I posted a message for former employees two years ago." Nettles has also been raising questions about the commission's security division, which has been slashed from 37 to 5 people since last year, but only recently have stories appeared in the press.
Now it would appear that all Nettles has to do is to sit back and watch, but that's not her style. Instead, she's pondering the possibility of applying for the job herself. "I am considering it, because I'd love the challenge of cleaning up the mess I've made," she says. She has made such a mess, in fact, that the next director will have to contend with a Texas State Auditor's investigation requested by Greer.
Ironically, the very man she helped to force out is the one who made it possible for Nettles to succeed him. When Governor Rick Perry was pushing Greer as a candidate for director in 2002, he didn't meet the job qualifications, which required a four-year degree. The commission obligingly changed the requirements to allow Greer's management experience to serve as a substitute for academic credentials. Nettles, who doesn't have a degree but ran her own real estate publication before starting the Lotto Report in 1993, would certainly seem to pass muster.
If Nettles applies for the post, her Texas Lottery expertise could make her a uniquely qualified candidate. "Let me tell you, she studies everything we do," says Bobby Heith, communications director for the lottery. "For somebody to come in here that has not dealt with the Texas Lottery Commission, it's not a short learning curve. I've been here two years, and I learn something every day." That's not to say that Heith is endorsing Nettles. "She would be demanding," he allows with a chuckle.
In fact, Nettles' chief criticism of former director Greer was that his lack of knowledge about the lottery led him to rely too heavily on his subordinates. Greer hinted as much in his letter of resignation, apologizing for "my reliance on staff recommendations without studying them more."
Greer's forced departure carries on Texas Lottery tradition. All of the lottery's four executive directors have been fired or resigned under pressure. "I can tell you I would not leave under a cloud," Nettles says. "I would never lie, I would never cheat."
But rather than let up on the commission as she considers applying to succeed Greer, Nettles is still hoping to add to its woes. She has finally enticed a feared right-wing watchdog group, Judicial Watch, to look into evidence that from 1997 to 2000 the Texas lottery shortchanged jackpot winners 13 times, for a total of more than $3 million. Judicial Watch is "very interested" in Nettles' allegations, says Russ Verney, the group's Southwest Regional Director.
Judicial Watch has already tangled with the Texas Lottery and come out on top. The group sued last year to block the commission from paying money it owed to a Las Vegas law firm hired to lobby the Texas Legislature in favor of allowing video lottery terminals.
Nettles has championed the cause of the cheated winners for nearly five years, but success was slow in coming. She first made her pitch to Verney earlier this year suit, but he was skeptical. "For a nonprofit to devote limited resources to an issue that essentially is, 'People who won a lot of money didn't get enough,' presented a problem for us," Verney says.