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Prize fight: SC man who wants to unmask lottery winners gets a new day in court

Lottery Jackpot (copy)

The KC Mart (above) in Simpsonville sold a Mega Millions lottery ticket valued at nearly $1.54 billion in October 2018. The winner was able to claim the money anonymously under South Carolina law. File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

George Glassmeyer is seeking the answer to a routine question that many South Carolinians probably ask themselves.

Who won the lottery last night? Or last week? Or last year? 

The S.C. Supreme Court joined the action on April 21, deciding the issue deserves a full judicial airing after a lengthy but unresolved legal tussle.

South Carolina is among eight states where lottery winners can shield their identities. Others forbid anonymity. Some let their newly minted millionaires stay under the radar by allowing them to claim their winnings through a trust or other murky legal entity.

The curiosity needle peaked in the Palmetto State in October 2018, after a Simpsonville convenience store sold a Mega Millions ticket with a staggering $1.537 billion jackpot. The winner, a South Carolina woman who waited six months to claim her after-tax lump-sum haul of $877.8 million, has never been publicly identified.

By that time, Glassmeyer was about five years into his quest to pull back the curtain on the lucky few.

"I hope to achieve transparency for the citizens of South Carolina so they can see where millions and millions of dollars are going. .. This is public money and a state agency," the Midlands resident and former state prosecutor said last week.

Citing South Carolina's open-record laws, Glassmeyer, a retired Irmo lawyer, filed his first request in March 2014. He asked the S.C. Lottery Commission to cough up the specifics about all of its $1 million-plus winners during the previous year, including names, addresses and phone numbers.

The commission replied that it wasn't required to release the information under state law. It said the details were "personal" and disclosing them would pose a safety threat and amount to an "unreasonable invasion of personal privacy," according to court filings. Numerous winners identified only as John Doe or Jane Doe filed complaints to keep their names under wraps. 

The commission didn't ignore Glassmeyer's requests completely. It provided him with the hometown of each of the 40 winners, how much they won, which games they played and the prize dates. 

"Glassmeyer responded that the Lottery Commission's disclosure did not satisfy his requests," according to the high court's ruling.

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The agency went on the offensive in May 2014. It sued Glassmeyer in Richland County and asked for a ruling to declare that releasing the information was an invasion of privacy.

The lottery prevailed in that round. A circuit court judge ruled in its favor based on the pleadings, without a trial. In addition, Glassmeyer was barred permanently from obtaining the information from any source.

He challenged the order at the S.C. Court of Appeals. After he was turned away again, he took his case to the Supreme Court.

This time Glassmeyer could claim a victory on most of the pertinent legal points that Columbia attorney Drew Radeker argued on his behalf.

For instance, the justices agreed in last week's ruling that the permanent injunction was overly broad, unnecessary and improper.

They also concurred that the judge who handled the original lawsuit erred by ruling too hastily.

"Without a trial on the issues to develop a factual record, there is no evidence on which the circuit court could base its judgment," according to the 5-0 decision written by Justice John Cannon Few.

The case is now heading back to where it started. A trial will be held in Richland County.

"In such an instance, the court must understand and address the reason for seeking the information because the reason goes directly to the public's interest and whether the invasion of personal privacy would be unreasonable," Few wrote.

Glassmeyer is no stranger to legal skirmishes tied to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. He has sued the city of Columbia twice over what he called violations of the open records law.

Last week, he was "absolutely" pleased about the latest turn in the lottery dispute, though he's less enamored about how slowly the wheels of justice can turn.

"It's taken us seven years to get to this point," he said.

One day after the case was remanded, the Lottery Commission announced a Powerball ticket valued at $2 million had been sold at Rucker Feed & Seed in Pelion. The winner has about six months to cash it in — and most likely will claim the prize anonymously.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott

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