Persistent reports about unhappiness in the ranks about new Arkansas Lottery director Eric Hagler burst into the open yesterday.
I learned Friday about a disagreement over his decision not to release to the public the names of winners of $2 million in a Powerball drawing in September. And today, Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Hagler had fired the lottery’s chief legal counsel, Michael Helms, for reasons not yet revealed.
Hagler was appointed director after a Beebe-era director, Bishop Woosley, quietly was eased out to make room for a Hutchinson administration pick. Hagler, who was practicing law in California, had no lottery experience but he knew Governor Hutchinson from time working in Arkansas and his father, a Little Rock physician, is a friend of Larry Walther, head of Finance and Administration, which includes the Lottery under its umbrella.
I’ve received complaints from staff about Hagler’s management style, but it’s hard to evaluate perceptions of treatment by holdover staff in a new administration. (See Little Rock police department, about which I’ll have more to say later today.)
But Hagler clearly didn’t see eye to eye with Helms, who had been on staff since 2016 and who told the D-G he may file a grievance. A spokesman for DF&A insisted Helms firing had nothing to do with his belief that the lottery should terminate its contract with Camelot Global Services, which has been paid $16 million over five years to build lottery revenue. It hasn’t accomplished much. In fiscal 2020, net scholarship revenue was only $6.6 million more, to $89.4 million than during the first full year of lottery operation in 2010. Gross revenue has grown by a bigger percentage, but so have expenses. Wickline noted that Camelot was supposed to add 600 lottery retail outlets, but has added 58 in five years. He also noted that Camelot has a Republican-connected lobbyist firm, which includes the likes of talk radio Republican cheerleader Bill Vickery, former Arkansas GOP executive director Mitchell Lowe, and former Republican Rep. John Burris.
And now about the hushed-up lottery winner. I was tipped that Hagler had blocked public release of the names of two people who shared a $2 million Powerball ticket bought in Pine Bluff in September. He reportedly told the winners he’d keep their names secret. When told the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act prevented that, he reportedly was not happy. But he did block a public release, normally a routine practice because news of big winners is believed to spur lottery ticket sales. There were public reports of a $2 million win and an announcement of the Pine Bluff store where the ticket was sold, but no release of the winners’ names.
I made an FOI request for the information along with communications in the lottery about the matter.
The response sowed that John Holland and his sister Martha Holland of Benton won the $2 million with a $3 ticket purchase at Ma Food Mart. They went to the claim center on Sept. 21 to get $1 million each, less $306,000 each in tax withholding.
I received 64 pages of emails, mostly about plans for the presentation of a bonus check to the retailer that sold the ticket. They included this email from Jerry Fetzer, the lottery’s chief fiscal officer:
The website’s news releases, however, do not include a release on the winners, only one that said $2 million had been won and the winner had not yet claimed the prize and another release on a bonus paid the seller of the ticket.
Emails indicate the effort to hush up the win.
Media wasn’t invited to the presentation of the bonus check to the Pine Bluff market on Oct. 2, where questions inevitably would have been asked about the winner.
Donna Bragg, director of marketing, wrote Tiffany McNeal, the lottery’s promotions coordinator about the event: “Are there local media outlets in Pine Bluff where we can send the release without sending to all Little Rock outlets?”
I asked Scott Hardin, the DFA spokesman who provided the FOI response, why a news release hadn’t been issued and specifically whether Hagler was responsible. His prepared response from Hagler:
The winner’s personal identities were not ‘pushed’ into the public via press release. I made the decision based on the winner’s request, her age, certain facts they shared (with myself, Jerry Fetzer, and Angela Springer) and the amount of money involved. We advised the winners that their identities would be released if OAL received a FOIA request.Neither I nor anyone else attempted to violate Arkansas law—-nor did we do so. Arkansas law does not require OAL to publish the identities of winners; rather, it merely obligates OAL to produce identifying information upon request. The Arkansas Times, through its employee Max Brantley, made a valid request for the information, which OAL provided.I note that several states prohibit by statute the release of the identity of any winner with a prize exceeding $1M. Arkansas does not have such a law, although there are lawmakers who believe such should be the case.