Lengthy list boiled down for local Lottery winners

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In January 2013, I discussed here a debate over publication of Lottery winners' names that was playing out across the United States. At the time, Pennsylvania was among the states that clearly disclosed its winners of $1,000 or more on its website while other states were restricting disclosure or considering it.

A few months later, things had changed in Pennsylvania. The Lottery began posting only a first name and last initial, hometown, amount won and from what game in announcing winners.

The Lottery's concern was the security of winners, and that they were being targeted by scams.

For us, there was little sense in publishing only first names - in fact, it could have resulted in misleading identifications - and so our monthly stories about the winners of $1,000 or more ceased for a time.

Taking up the cause again recently, we contacted Lottery officials and were told that if we filed a Right to Know request each month, we could obtain the winners' names. That's what we're now doing, and our monthly stories have returned.

We credit the Lottery for not doing what so many other government agencies tend to do: make us wait for five business days to respond to our requests, which is allowed by law. So far, we've had a reply within a day or two.

There is a bit more work involved, however. The January list of those claiming prizes of $1,000 or more, which you'll see in the paper sometime soon, had some 7,000 names and was 165 pages long. While the names of the Lottery games are in alphabetical order, the names and hometowns of the winners are in no particular order.

As you might guess, it's a bit overwhelming, but a computer search for the names of communities in our coverage area is used to pick from the long list of winners and compile our local list, which typically involves a few dozen winners.

We've detailed our position before: the Lottery is state-operated and involves public funds, so publishing winners' names is part of the effort toward full disclosure, no different than government budgets, spending records, meeting minutes or other public records.

The Lottery says it best itself with this website message: "The Pennsylvania Lottery must be accountable to the taxpayers and residents who benefit from lottery-funded programs, and transparency of operations is key to the lottery's integrity. Providing winners' information is also important to players who want to see the winners of the games they play."

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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