ORLANDO, Fla. - When it comes to picking the right numbers in the Florida Lottery, Tesfai Kassye appears to be a big winner. In the past nine years, records show the Orlando convenience store owner has claimed 74 large jackpots totaling $189,372.
Nilam Patel, who owns two Ormond Beach convenience stores, has had even better success playing scratch-off games. Since 2003 Patel has claimed 103 winning tickets worth $212,363, according to state lottery records.
"It's just luck," insisted Patel's husband, Prakashchandra. "That's it."
But some of Patel's customers are skeptical of the retailer's big lottery wins.
"It's fishy. It's kind of suspicious," said Ann Laporte, who frequently bought lottery tickets at Patel's store. "It's a little bit odd."
Florida Lottery officials find it unusual, too. So the state began investigating Kassye and Patel as part of a statewide probe of retailers with a high number of prize claims.
"We're being very proactive about going out there and seeking out those retailers we think might be gaming the system," said Don Creley, Florida Lottery's district manager for the Orlando region.
Under lottery rules, any jackpot totaling $600 or more must be claimed at a Florida Lottery district office, the agency's headquarters in Tallahassee, or by mail.
On March 25, Nilam Patel claimed winning five scratch-off tickets at a district office, each worth $1,000. On one of those games the odds of winning that much money are one in 2,163. On another game there is a one in 8,571 chance of winning $1,000.
Investigators with the Florida Lottery's Division of Security found it suspicious that none of those winning tickets were purchased at Patel's stores. Retailers have a financial incentive to buy tickets at their own establishments because they receive a 5 percent commission on each sale.
Lottery officials also found it unusual that two of Patel's tickets had been previously scanned at other retailers' stores to see if they were winners before they were scanned a second time at her store. Investigators questioned why Patel waited more than a month to cash in some of her winning tickets.
During an interview with lottery investigators, Patel insisted she had never been given a ticket by someone else to cash and has never paid anyone for a winning ticket. She said her husband buys tickets wherever they are shopping and that she does not care about earning the sales commission.
Patel told investigators they check the tickets at their own stores a second time to verify they are winners, but have little time to claim their prizes at a district office due to having kids in school.
Lottery officials did not believe Patel's account. They disputed Patel's claim that she had to drive her husband despite him having a drivers license. Investigators also said lottery records contradict Patel's assertion that the couple usually checks their winning tickets at a nearby Publix.
"It appears Mrs. Patel has not been truthful during the course of this investigation," wrote the case agent.
On June 3, the Florida Lottery terminated Patel's retailer contracts at her two stores, The Grocery Box and Crossroad Grocery.
"You have violated Florida law, Lottery rules, and your retailer contracts," the agency's general counsel informed Patel in a letter.
Like Patel, most of Tesfai Kassye's winning tickets were purchased at stores other than his own. Records show 11 of them were bought at a competing convenience store directly across the street from Kassye's Washington Shores gas station.
Kassye told lottery investigators he spends $400-500 a week on scratch-offs, buying them wherever he goes. He refused to explain why his winning tickets were scanned at multiple locations, according to a report.
"The activity observed to be conducted by Mr. Kassye appears to be the results of either defrauding players of their tickets or ticket brokering," concluded the case agent.
Ticket brokers buy winning tickets from players who may not want to claim large prizes themselves, according to lottery officials. The state is required to deduct child support, outstanding fines and other state debts from any lottery winnings over $600.
Some unscrupulous clerks have also been known to steal winning tickets from players. During a recent sting operation, four South Florida clerks were arrested for allegedly telling undercover agents their tickets were losers when they were actually winning tickets. The clerks later attempted to claim the prizes, according to reports.
Kassye has not been charged with any crimes. However, the Florida Lottery removed machines from Kassye's two Orlando stores -- Sam's Super Market and Sam's Service Station -- and revoked his lottery license.
Kassye told Local 6 he disputes Florida Lottery records indicating his numerous jackpots. He refused to comment further.
The Florida Lottery has been conducting undercover sting operations since 2009 as part of the agency's Retailer Integrity Program. A Florida Lottery spokeswoman confirmed additional investigations were launched following recent reports published by the Palm Beach Post indicating six of the state's 10 most prolific lottery winners are retailers.
Florida Lottery officials pointed out that most retailers are honest and have a financial incentive to remain in good standing with the agency.
"The average lottery player, when they go into a store, spends about twice as much (on merchandise)," said Creley. "Lottery brings people off the gas island and into the store to make a purchase. If they don't have lottery in their store, that player is going to go somewhere else."
To combat fraud and retailer theft, the Florida Lottery has launched a public education campaign urging players to sign their tickets upon purchasing them.
"By signing it you're ensuring you're the one who owns that ticket," said Creley.
Many retailers have self-serve scanners which allow players to check their own tickets for winners. If one is not available, Creley recommends that players ask to see the clerk's computer screen to verify the ticket's status. If the clerk refuses, tickets can be checked at a Florida Lottery district office.
"The integrity of the lottery and having the public trust is our foremost mission," said Creley.
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