Told Ya So

Dawn Nettles called the Lottery Comission on funny numbers.

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-Telegram did 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 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.

The recent attention given to Nettles' other charges, however, has lent her evidence a new luster. "When the state takes on gambling, they should be more honest and transparent than a local bookie," he says. The statute of limitations could prove to be a problem in recovering any damages from the lottery, but Verney says his group is looking into whether the typical two years would apply in the winners' case. Even if a lawsuit isn't viable, however, Judicial Watch will henceforth be keeping an eye on the Texas Lottery. "Legal versus illegal is not the right standard to go by," Verney says. "Right versus wrong should be the standard."

Chalk up another convert to the Nettles gospel. She says congratulatory messages are pouring in from her fans, including many current and former lottery employees. "Let me tell you, the employees think I've hung the moon," Nettles says. --Rick Kennedy

Funny Girls

The guys of the Section 8 improv comedy troupe are packed into a booth, pounding down respectable male drinks like Budweisers and whiskeys. They're jostling each other, constantly cracking jokes at anyone's expense. They had a pretty good show over at Ozona, and now they're out chasing a little bit of tail at the Regal Beagle on Lovers Lane. It's not so hard, either. They're funny guys. They're confident. One or two of them are even reasonably attractive. They can do whatever they damned well please. Except answer a simple question.

Who are the funniest girls in Dallas?

A collective look of confusion wafts over their faces. Most of them are happy enough to blow off the question in favor of another game of pool. One just chuckles. Another says the answer is too easy: "Girls aren't funny."

But we Dallas Observer reporters are not so easily deterred. After a few more drinks and a little poking, prodding and perhaps a little flirtation, there is a name.

"Kristin McCollum," says one of the black-shirted comedians. "She's pretty good."

It's a grudging admission, but it's also encouraging. It means that the Dallas comedy scene is finally starting to show some signs of life after a period of dormancy, say those who have watched it rise and fall in recent years. With the opening of the West End Comedy Theater in 2004 and the success of the first annual Dallas Comedy Festival at the end of July, the funny business is starting to pay off. Some of the biggest beneficiaries are women, an anomaly in the boys' club of comedy. From scoring traveling gigs with Carlos Mencia to selling out weekends at their own comedy clubs, local women are closing the gender gap.

"It's a funny thing when you're a woman and you say you do comedy," McCollum says, blushing when told that hers is the name to drop when it comes to female comedians in North Texas. "People look at you differently."

McCollum, with a full head of curly, red hair and bright, glittering eyes, is deceptively funny. She looks more like a Miss Sweet Potato pageant contestant than a dirty-joke cracking member of sketch comedy troupe Middle Management. But even Fort Worth's Four Day Weekend, arguably the best improv show in the area, has given her their blessing. She fills in whenever a regular can't make a show, occasionally raising eyebrows.

"When I first walked on stage with Four Day," McCollum says, "there was a collective silent gasp. Like, 'Why is there a woman in this group?'"

But she can win an audience over with a song, McCollum says. Musical numbers allow her to show the audience exactly how unpredictable she can be. McCollum refuses to bow to any of the conventions normally assumed by women performing comedy.

"You'll have women that make jokes about PMS or being a bad driver," McCollum says. "Unless I'm in a scene where we're making fun of stereotypes, I won't do it."

This problem of subject matter is a major one for female comedians. The good ones say they tend to steer clear of jokes about sex or relationships because they'll be branded "girl comics." Gendered humor doesn't go over well when it's coming from the mouth of a woman, says stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo, an Addison Improv regular whose philosophy is similar to McCollum's.  

"When I first started, I made a rule," says Alonzo, who just got picked up for a tour with the notoriously obnoxious Latino comedian Carlos Mencia. "No jokes about being a woman or about being Hispanic."

Alonzo says she's the first woman Mencia has ever invited to open for him on the road, and she'll also be joining the writing team for his show on Comedy Central. Speaking at the Improv prior to one of her last shows in Dallas before she makes the move to Los Angeles, she says many female comedians lean too hard on the "chick schtick."

"I just want to tell them, 'That's not all you are!'" Alonzo says. "'There's more to you! You're not just a wife or a mother!'"

Everybody has a theory as to why the best female comedians can't--or won't--crack jokes about being women. But Dallas comedy legend, filmmaker and co-owner of the Back Door Comedy Club, Linda Stogner, says the difficulty really lies in finding a unique voice no matter which public bathroom you use.

"Being a female didn't hurt or help me, initially," Stogner says, over the drone of oldies at Snuffer's on Greenville. "If you're trying to be original, that's just difficult, period."

Stogner has been performing stand-up for almost 15 years. She and her best friend, fellow comic Jan Norton, bounced from venue to venue for years doing sets and eventually grew weary of the constant search for stage time. They went into business together, and, in 2004, the Back Door Comedy Club secured a permanent space on Ross Avenue. They refused to be deterred by what Stogner calls the "Jerry Lewis" school of thought.

"Some guys will just say chicks aren't funny," explains Stogner, who says she's literally been two-stepped offstage by audience members less than thrilled about seeing a female stand-up. "You just have to get past it and say this is what I want to do, and you've got to prove them wrong."

Proving "them" wrong is something that Angela Epley and Victoria Hines, who make up the female half of local long-form troupe the French Club Dropouts, are serious about. As Thursday night regulars at the West End theater, they go up against other troupes in an hour-long comedy competition called the "Texas Throw-Down." After the show, audience members vote for the troupe they liked best. Epley and Hines are not shy about their record.

"We win, like, 99 percent of the time," says the occasionally spastic Epley, smiling broadly at Hines over dinner at the Meridian Room. Epley and Hines don't mince words when it comes to the plight of being female and funny.

"It doesn't really help when male comedians are..." begins the shorter, brown-haired Epley, who looks as if she's about to wax philosophical.

"Misogynists?" offers Hines. They burst into laughter. Hines assures everyone that she's just kidding, but rushes to qualify her statement.

"As long as you're smart," she says, "and you can bring smart comedy to the table, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman."

Gender, in fact, is a particularly hot topic for the Punch Drunk Comedy troupe, whose members say they've had a faithful gay following in Dallas for a few years now. Rasa Hollender, another frequently-dropped local name and a member of Punch Drunk, loves making people squirm by going places no one else dares when it comes to sexuality.

"You have to be fearless," Hollender says. "I'll do anything on stage. I've been totally naked on stage. I don't give a shit."

She subscribes to the theory that young boys are more frequently encouraged to be outgoing, while girls must be more subdued. "If there's a boy who acts out in class," Hollender says, "people say he's just precocious. If a girl acts out, she's not being ladylike."

Rather than sit and stew on the finer points of why comedy is still a man's game, however, Dallas' female comedians invariably say that they'd rather show than tell, especially in a city becoming friendlier to comedians in general.

"I'll do whatever it takes to prove [skeptics] wrong," says Alonzo, who may do just that upon her move to Los Angeles. "I'd like to be seen as a comedian, not as a girl." --Andrea Grimes

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