Opinion

Busting the man who cracked the lottery

Wisconsin investigators found the smoking gun

Last week, I asked David Maas where the case that the New York Times recently called “The Man Who Cracked the Lottery” ranks in his career.

“In terms of uniqueness, it has to be at the top,” Maas says. “I think a lot of people have daydreams of being able to predict winning numbers. This was the real-life manifestation of it, albeit in a criminal way.”

Maas continued, “It certainly seemed unreal when I started to get into the details of it.”

Maas has been an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) in Madison since July 2008. Prior to that, he was an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee.

Maas’ specialty is cybercrime and computer crime.

“If anything comes in with cell phones or computers,” he said, “it typically gets funneled to me.”

The case that came to Maas in September 2015 was anything but typical.

It was the subject of an extraordinary article by Minnesota journalist Reid Forgrave in the May 6 New York Times Magazine.

The article describes how the information security director for the 33-state Multi-State Lottery, a man named Eddie Tipton, masterminded a scheme to fix the lottery, stealing millions of dollars in the process.

Forgrave’s piece makes clear that Maas and the Wisconsin DOJ came relatively late to the case. But it’s also clear that it was the Wisconsin investigators who unearthed what Maas called “the smoking gun.”

The investigator who first heated up what seemed to be a hopelessly cold case was an Iowa assistant attorney general named Rob Sand.

The case, at the that time, involved only a single suspicious lottery ticket purchased at a QuikTrip in Des Moines on Dec. 23, 2010. The Hot Lotto ticket was suspicious because while it was a huge winner, worth $16.5 million, nobody brought it forward for a full year — and just two hours before the deadline — and it was lawyers claiming the prize for a trust in Belize.

Sand got the case in 2014, and did the only thing he could think of: He released a web link of the surveillance video of the man buying the winning ticket. The man’s features were concealed by a hoodie draped over the bill of a cap, but there was also audio.

Lottery employees in different states recognized the low-pitched voice: Eddie Tipton, one of those charged with keeping the lottery secure.

As described in the New York Times Magazine story, Tipton was found guilty of fraud in July 2015. But Sand, the Iowa prosecutor, felt more fraudulent tickets had probably been cashed – and they also hadn’t figured out how Tipton had rigged the system.

Then they got a tip from Texas saying a decade ago, Tipton’s brother had won the lottery.

“Now the hunt was on for more illicitly claimed tickets,” Forgrave wrote.

Which is when, in September 2015, David Maas of the Wisconsin DOJ began investigating.

“I got a string of emails from our lottery association about this case out of Iowa,” Maas said, “and their request to start going back through winners in past years that met certain criteria.”

The criteria: Winners from Iowa or Texas of games picked by random number generators.

A close friend of Tipton’s in Texas named Robert Rhodes had first brought the original $16.5-million Des Moines ticket to the lawyers to claim.

Wisconsin investigators found that a Texan named Robert Rhodes had won Wisconsin’s Very Own Megabucks Game — and more than $780,000 — in 2007.

Still, the vexing question remained: How did they do it? Wisconsin held the key.

“There were three machines that were in use at the time of the 2007 drawing,” Maas told me. “They were identical random number generator machines with the same software.”

“Those machines,” Mass continued, “were taken out of service by the Wisconsin lottery simply as a matter of routine in 2014. But the Wisconsin lottery stored those machines and never touched them. The machines and original software were intact. We were able to conduct a forensic analysis of the software.”

And they found the culprit — malicious computer code inserted by Tipton.

“The random number generator was being bypassed by this code,” Maas said. “As soon as I saw that, I knew that we had him.”

Maas called Sand in Iowa. Unlike at his first trial, this time Tipton pleaded guilty.

Maas took me into greater detail about how Tipton’s malicious code worked, and there is a lengthy and highly technical explanation of it in Forgrave’s excellent New York Times article.

As an English major, I’m still not sure I understand it.

What matters is that the good guys won.

“The people who were involved were caught,” Maas told me. “Restitution was a big focus. We wanted to make sure states were reimbursed.

“Another factor,” Maas said in conclusion, “was restoring public trust in the integrity of the lottery system, and I think we did that by cracking this and making sure something like this hopefully will never happen again.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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