The New York State Lottery put out false information to snare two Syracuse-area brothers accused of scamming a customer out of a winning $5 million scratch-off ticket.
Lottery spokeswoman Carolyn Hapeman put out the bogus story last month, saying that 34-year-old Andy Ashkar legitimately bought the ticket in 2006 but waited several years before trying to claim the prize in March. Ashkar planned to share the money with his brother, 36-year-old Nayel Ashkar, according to the Lottery.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Lottery officials used the media to get the real winner to come forward after suspecting that the Ashkars were not the legitimate winners partly because they asked for a lesser amount if they skipped a news conference.
The brothers pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of attempted grand larceny, conspiracy and possession of stolen property. Officials allege they duped the real winner, a 49-year-old married father of two, when he tried to cash in the ticket.
The Ashkars' lawyer, Bob Durr, said his clients maintain they bought the ticket legitimately and had good reason for not immediately cashing the winning ticket.
Christy Calicchia, the lottery's director of communications, and General Counsel William Murray declined to be interviewed about the lottery's bogus story.
Brenda Wrigley, an associate professor of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said the fake press release is a troubling development.
"I'm sure the DA would say 'We had to smoke them out and all's well that ends well,' but it's a slippery slope when the press is used for government purposes," she said.
"From a journalism standpoint, I would be concerned that government is using journalists to accomplish a sort of secret kind of mission here," she said. "The state agencies work for the people and they're supposed to tell the public the truth."
Fitzpatrick said the ticket owner came forward after the lottery's planted story went public. He said the man had been fooled into giving up the winning ticket when he went to cash it at the Ashkar family's Green Ale market in October 2006.
Fitzpatrick said Andy Ashkar told the man he had won $5,000 and successfully offered him $4,000 in cash to avoid taxes and other complications.
The brothers' lawyer said Wednesday they did not immediately cash in the ticket because they worried about the family's safety in the rough neighborhood if it became know they had come into money and about the potential embarrassment in their small Palestinian Muslim community from winning at gambling, a forbidden practice.
"They don't understand why this is happening," Durr said. "They think everything they did made sense in their world."
According to the state lottery division's original account, Andy Ashkar claimed in March that he bought the ticket at his parents' convenience store in Syracuse in 2006, decided to share it with his brother, and delayed claiming the prize until shortly before it would have expired because he didn't want the money to influence his engagement and subsequent marriage.
As part of the bogus story, Hapeman said last month that a routine investigation launched because Andy Ashkar bought the ticket at the family store had determined he bought the ticket legitimately.
In fact, the lottery already doubted the Ashkars' story partly because they asked if they could take a lesser amount in exchange for skipping the usual news conference held for big winners, Fitzpatrick said.
"Anytime a public agency knowingly spreads false information, it undermines the credibility of that agency and the ability of news organizations to fulfill our mission to reliably and accurately inform the public," Karen Testa, the East regional editor for The Associated Press, said Wednesday.