Improbable odds put frequent lottery winners in crosshairs

CLEVELAND — Rickey Meng is the king of Ohio Lottery winners, taking home more prizes than anyone in the state.

Meng, of Cleveland, won 342 tickets and pocketed $956,717, in a span of seven years. He attributed his streak to a feel for numbers.

“I would see a number on a license plate or an address, and it would just jump out at me,” Meng, 63, told The Plain Dealer.

Others called his run improbable.

“It is inconceivable to me, as a statistician, that someone could win 342 times,” said Ronald Wasserstein, the executive director of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

In Ohio, Meng is far from alone in his lottery success. The state has one of the highest numbers of frequent winners in the country, according to a national report on frequent winners released today by PennLive, a news organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. PennLive is a sister company of The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com.

All of Meng’s 342 winning tickets are for prizes of at least $600. The report by PennLive and collaborator Columbia University found that, from 2010 to 2016, Ohio had 112 players with 50 or more wins of at least $600. The state ranks behind Massachusetts with 384 winners, New York with 319, Illinois with 245 and Georgia with 167.

Reporters analyzed more than 11 million lottery claims from 35 states and the District of Columbia. Nine states were unable to provide data or were unable to provide it in a form that could be analyzed. A half dozen other states, including Nevada and Alabama, do not have lotteries.

The Ohio Lottery is one of only 10 in the nation that does not systematically monitor frequent winners, according to PennLive.

Marie Kilbane Seckers, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Lottery, said that the lottery only monitors frequent winning by lottery retailers. However, she said the agency had begun to discuss broadening its investigations to non-retailers.

“We focus our resources on retailers,” Kilbane Seckers said. “We found that’s the best place to spend our time.”

Asked about the high number of Meng’s winnings, Kilbane Seckers said: “He’s definitely an outlier. It’s astounding. I agree.”

She said the Ohio Lottery asks every person who wins a cash prize to disclose whether they are a lottery retailer, employee or relative of a retailer when filling out a claim form. Lottery investigators review anyone who meets that criteria and wins often.

Lottery investigation reports acquired by The Plain Dealer and PennLive show that the Ohio Lottery investigated its second most-frequent winner, Samuel Sliman, the president of Meyer’s Lake Beverage & Drive Thru in Canton, in 2014.

PennLive’s analysis found that Sliman has won 268 prizes of $600 or more between 2001 and 2016, collectively worth $775,430.

The report shows that investigators were aware that Sliman had won more than 200 prizes but other details of the investigation were redacted by the Ohio Lottery.

Kilbane Seckers confirmed that no violations were found during the 2014 investigation but said Sliman’s lottery license was cancelled the next year after he violated the lottery’s policy on making prompt, accurate payments.

Sliman declined to comment.

Bill Hertoghe, a former chief investigator at the California Lottery, said investigating retailers who win frequently is not enough. He said California investigates frequent winners, as well.

“You have to look at the people with the high volume of wins,” Hertoghe said. “We call them ‘frequent fliers.’ They all give the same reason for their success: ‘They’re lucky.’ “

Ohio’s other most frequent winners include: James Bennett of Polk, in Ashland County, with 257 claims for $252,135; Manojkumar Patel of Highland Heights, with 195 claims for $685,676; and Edward Blain of Nova, also in Ashland County, with 171 winning tickets for $693,799. All of those tickets were for prizes of $600 or more.

Bennett declined to comment, while repeated attempts to reach Patel and Blain were unsuccessful.

Meng, who subsisted on Social Security Disability for back issues, told The Plain Dealer that he formerly spent about $100 per week on lottery games.

“The money from the winnings helped me live,” he said. “I just wasn’t getting enough from Social Security. It was like a second income. It let me do stuff I couldn’t.”

Meng added, however, that he spent most of his winnings on buying more lottery tickets.

“I made a lot of money but I spent a lot, too,” he said. “People don’t realize that. I didn’t win every time I walked into a store.”

Claims data shows that 67 percent of Meng’s winnings were for Pick 4, a twice-daily game that requires players to choose four numbers. He claimed tickets across Northeast Ohio, from Westlake to Willoughby.

In one stretch from Nov. 8, 2008,-March 15, 2009, according to claims data, Meng won $74,800 on 21 Pick 4 tickets.

“Wherever I went, I would play,” Meng said. “You name it. Keno, Pick4 and all the higher payout scratch-off games. The key was to keep buying more tickets.”

But Meng said he no longer plays most lottery games following issues with the Internal Revenue Service.

Meng said that over the years he routinely ignored notices from the agency about unpaid taxes on his lottery winnings.

According to Meng, since 2015, officials garnish nearly all of his early retirement checks from Social Security.

Meng lives in a working-class section of Tremont. He said a relative has to help him with his rent.

He now only plays $3 scratch-off tickets, where a winning purse is less than $500.

“My lucky days are over,” he said.

But some are skeptical that Meng could win so frequently by just playing a lot.

Wasserstein, of the American Statistical Association, has studied lotteries and the odds of winning them. In general, he estimated that the average player who buys a $10 lottery ticket has a one in 5,000 chance of winning at least $500.

Therefore, Wasserstein said, a player who won 342 times would likely need to buy 1,710,000 tickets at a cost of $11.7 million.

“It’s not surprising that individuals win more than once, that they can win multiple times,” Wasserstein said. “But the chances of winning often, of more than $500 and up, are very, very small.”

There are several possible explanations for how some frequent lottery claimants are able to seemingly beat the odds.

In other states where frequent lottery winning has been probed, investigators have sometimes found unusual good fortune rooted in crime: from cheating to schemes used to facilitate money laundering.

Authorities have also sometimes found frequent winners have been ticket-cashing or discounting. In those cases, a player sells his winning ticket to another person typically at a discount of its prize value.

Winners sometimes do this to avoid having alimony, or taxes, or a lien from being deducted from their winnings. In some states, like Virginia, this is illegal but in Ohio it’s in a legal gray area.

Meng said he never took part in such activity: “It was never anything like that.”

He stressed that he simply played a lot.

“But remember, you can’t just spend $5 on a ticket,” he said. “You had to play a lot of tickets.”

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