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Politics

South Carolina Court Wades Into Lottery Winner Privacy

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South Carolina has long been one of a handful of states where lottery winners can remain anonymous unless they choose to come forward, but that practice is receiving increased scrutiny, thanks to a decision from the state's highest court.

In an opinion handed down earlier this month, the state Supreme Court sided with a man who filed an open records request with the state Lottery Commission seeking names, contact information, date and jackpot amount for prize winners of a million dollars or more for a 12-month period in 2013 and 2014.

The commission ultimately sued the man, asking a judge to declare that it didn't have to release the identifying information. The judge agreed, ruling that the release of the winners’ “personal identifying information would constitute an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy" within the meaning of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, also prohibiting the man from continuing to seek the information from any source.

Last week, justices sent the case back to a trial court to decide anew, writing that the broad injunction was improper, and that the lower court didn't have the right to prevent the plaintiff from trying to get the information from a source other than the Lottery Commission.

Throughout the case, the court wrote, the commission "relied heavily on the threat to the safety of lottery winners to support its argument the invasion of a winner’s privacy would be unreasonable,” arguing that winners in the state and elsewhere had been threatened, physically harmed and even scammed after being identified.

But, the court wrote, officials “presented no evidence to support the statements.”

The decision could turn on its head a longstanding anonymity practice by the state Lottery Commission, which has successfully fought off previous open-records requests about winners, including the winner of a nearly $400 million Powerball jackpot in Lexington County in September 2013.

That conversation arose again after a convenience store customer in South Carolina purchased a Mega Millions ticket worth $1.537 billion, the second-biggest lottery prize ever in American history and the largest jackpot payout to a single winner in U.S. history. A year later, the winner ultimately stepped forward but still elected to remain anonymous.

At least 11 states allow anonymity to lottery winners. In some states, like Arizona, winners can keep their names secret for a set time after claiming prizes, but after that names are public record.

Officials and lawmakers have said that anonymity can protect winners from being targeted by criminals and other unscrupulous people asking them for money.

“Everything we do we try to create a winner, whether it is education, whether it is a retailer, whether it is a player,” South Carolina Education Lottery Chief Operating Officer Tony Cooper told The Associated Press in 2018, explaining the board’s policy of allowing winners to claim prizes anonymously. “Why do you want a player who is a winner and now he becomes a loser because his name is out there?”

State lottery officials didn't immediately return a message Wednesday seeking comment on the decision. Drew Radeker, an attorney for the man who sued the commission, told the AP that he was pleased with the high court's ruling, which he said was in favor of public information disclosure.

"The information that was sought in this case was about the identities of the people who received many millions of dollars in public funds," Radeker said. “Receiving a million dollars or more from the state Lottery Commission is a public transaction, and I was always at a loss as to what was so private about that."