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Thursday, November 6, 2014

5. LIFE'S A LOTTERY






Late 1990


Soon, a third client manifested itself, reined in by Clair via a former U.S. Senate investigator:  The automated wagering division of a large high-tech company, which found itself, time and again, beaten by its main competitor in the acquisition of state lottery contracts—an industry the competitor now dominated.

And our client knew why:  The competitor, which I’ll call Sci Data, used a carrot and stick approach with state lottery officials.  Those who played ball were rewarded with expensive trips and high-paying jobs; those who did not were intimidated and lost their jobs.

We were put into contact with a former state lottery director in Utah who had lost her job for not awarding Utah’s contract to Sci Data.  She told me she had been in the lottery business for thirteen years and that she and only one lottery director, out of 35, countrywide, were unwilling to take bribes to fix state contracts.  Those willing were given European vacations, luxury cruises, high-class prostitutes, college tuition for kids and high-paying do-nothing jobs with Sci Data or a Sci Data subsidiary.

Said she:  “The former lottery director of New York state now gets a quarter-million dollars a year as Sci Data’s ‘South American Representative’ because he speaks a few words of Spanish.  But if you call Sci Data’s headquarters, it takes them seventeen minutes to figure out who he is—I timed it.

“Let’s put the lottery business and Sci Data into perspective,” she continued.  “States are desperate for money.  Lotteries provide big revenue for little effort and resources.  So, as long as the big bucks keep rolling in, nobody bothers to look closely at what’s going on beneath the surface. Even the so-called security people are former traffic cops who don’t have enough level of understanding.  With millions, not millions, billions of dollars in contracts, there’s got to be some kind of checks and balances that aren’t in place now.  Sci Data bought off a governor’s aide in Missouri.  And in Colorado they bought off the governor.”

After conferring with our client, Clair green-lighted my proposal to contact CBS 60 Minutes with our findings.  

Two producers from the venerable TV show flew down from New York City to lunch with me at the Tabard Inn.

60 Minutes had a great reputation for investigative reporting, but, “truth is,” one of the producers told me, “we need people like you to give us the whole story, then we can swing into action and film it.”

I laid it out and provided a written proposal.  The senior producer liked what he read, but didn’t want to show his hand, attempting the role of skeptic—always the correct stance when dealing with someone trying to convince you of something.

“Who’s the victim?” he posed.  “How do Sci Data’s devious methods affect Joe Bloggs, the man in the street who buys a lottery ticket?”

“I guess it doesn’t affect Joe at all,” I conceded.  “When he goes into a 7-11 and imagines himself on the French Riviera, he’s going to buy a lottery ticket, or twenty, no matter how corrupt the vendor is.”

“Exactly,” said the producer.  “And that’s what’s important to Don Hewitt [the executive producer].  These are the questions Hewitt will ask me.”

“I understand,” I said.  “And here’s your answer:  maybe there’s nothing that directly effects Joe Bloggs right now, but once Sci Data truly dominates or monopolizes the lottery business, who says they won’t put their unscrupulous methods to work fixing lotteries?  Bad guys are bad guys.  If you expose them now, you nip it in the bud—and it’s still a substantial story.”

The producer phoned back a week later.  “It’s a no-go,” he said.  “What you need is a whistle-blower.”

So I reconnected to the former lottery director from Utah and put 60 Minutes’ question to her:  How does the corruption affect Joe Bloggs?

The answer rolled off her tongue without a moment’s hesitation:  “The millions that are spent paying off lottery directors should go to the public.  Companies that submit lower bids should be engaged.  And since that doesn’t happen, Joe Bloggs pays higher taxes.”

60 Minutes remained unmoved. So I took the story to NBC, where it received more positive attention.

“The budget is tight,” said a senior producer.  “We’ve already taken on a couple of freelancers, one of which was a mistake.  I can pay three thousand dollars for the story, but only if it gets on the air.”

Good thing I wasn’t trying to make a living as a freelance journalist anymore, earning money instead from private-sector intelligence to use the media.  Any qualms I might have had about this dissipated when NBC’s contract arrived three weeks later.  It demanded everything, promised nothing; the only thing pretty about it was NBC’s colorful turkey motif.

Right after I executed the agreement, Carl, the producer to whom the story was assigned, called to say he had serious reservations about producing it. Next day we had a meeting in the office of his boss, who had acquired the story.  She spit fire at Carl, practically called him a dolt.  We retreated to Carl’s office.

“I’ve been an investigative reporter for six years,” said Carl, assuming, I guess, I was just some jerk who’d overheard something in a bar.  “And I can tell you, it’s damn hard to prove corruption.  A guy who’s taken a bribe will never admit it, and the guy who paid a bribe is not likely to talk either.”

“No question,” I replied.  “This story needs some work.”

“That’s just what I mean,” moaned Carl.  “We need stories already investigated.”

We resolved to call the Utah whistle-blower on a conference line.  She told us that the annual lottery directors’ convention was scheduled to convene in Washington one week hence. 

Perfect timing.  We’d have all the players in our own backyard, beneath one roof.  Carl could at least shoot “B roll”—background visuals that set the scene.

Carl determined I should be present, too, as an extra pair of eyes working the crowd, taking names—posing as a journalist from elsewhere.

The double-ruse:  Here I was, rusing NBC, and they wanted me to ruse Sci Data.

To establish cover, I contacted an editor at a British newspaper I’d worked for years earlier.  He provided bona fides.  Then I dressed for the part.  The key is to blend in, get lost in the crowd and, more than anything, live and breathe your cover story.  In undercover work, you stick to the truth as much as possible, believe every word you say.  If you don’t believe what you’re saying, what should anyone else?

The Capital Hilton is a maze of ballrooms, conference rooms and corridors; I found the Press Hospitality suite, signed in and hung a news media pass around my neck.

As I wandered the convention floor into a plenary session, it was easy to find Carl:  he was the guy behind the bright lights, directing a two-person crew where to point the camera.  

After he got his shots, I followed him out, three steps behind.  “Pssst,” I said.  “How’s it going?”

Carl turned.  “Where’ve you been?”

“Right behind you, inside the plenary.”

“Shhh,” said Carl.  “Let’s meet in the men’s room.”

We reconnected in a far-off lavatory; Carl took a whizz while we talked.  “Sci Data is on to me,” he said.  “They know I’m from NBC, and they seem to know I’m focusing on them.”

Gee, maybe it’s the way you turn on your lights only when a Sci Data executive takes the stage?

“We know their names,” Carl continued, “but we don’t know what they look like.”

Everyone wore a nametag, but you needed to stand nose-to-nose to read it.

“Our man with the concealed camera is going to be here any minute,” whispered Carl.  “You and he are going to visit the exhibition hall and shoot everyone at the Sci Data booth.  Your job is to get them talking—and keep them talking for half an hour.”

“No worries,” I replied.  “I’ve already established cover as a British freelancer and…”

“No, we’re not going to do that,” Carl interrupted.  “I just spoke to the senior producer and she doesn’t want you to identify yourself as a reporter.”

“Why not?”

“She thinks it will arouse suspicion.”

I stood there with my mouth agape, disbelieving this.

“Take off your press pass,” Carl commanded.  “You’re going to be a businessman.  My guy with the concealed camera will pose as your partner.  Talk business with the Sci Data guys.”

I should have told Carl he was out of his mind and left there and then.  You do not concoct cover stories at a moment’s notice, devoid of thought, background, and context, devoid of answers to questions such as, What do you do? or Do you have a business card?

But I played the good soldier, assuming that somehow, in someway I was too stupid to understand, NBC knew better than I.

“Let’s go meet the concealed camera guy,” said Carl.  “He’s in the lobby.”

I trailed behind.  Minutes later, Carl introduced me to Rodney, my business partner.

Let me tell you about Rodney.  He was African-American, big, about 6’4, built like a tackle.  He wore blue jeans and open shirt amid a sea of people dressed in business suits and ties, including myself.  Rodney carried a big shoulder bag with a tiny hole in it for the camera lens to peek through.  And Carl said we had to be at the Sci Data booth in two minutes.

So this is the situation:  I don’t even know Rodney’s last name, only that’s he’s a big, black bear of a man in weekend wear.  We are supposed to convince Sci Data that we are business partners.  And we’ve never even had a conversation.

Rodney just shrugged.

“C’mon, let’s move,” said Carl.

“I’ll stroll around a bit, work my way over to the Sci Data,” I said.

“No,” barked Carl.  “Walk straight up to the booth and start talking.”

Rodney and me.  Business partners.  Thrown into the deep end of a pool with no water.

Was Carl out of his mind?  Or maybe just trying to sabotage my story?

Rodney switched on his camera and walked directly to the booth, as instructed.

Everyone standing behind the Sci Data counter eyed Rodney with suspicion; none of them wanted anything to do with him—nor me, by extension.  

I boldly stepped forward and mumbled something about being interested in Sci Data’s foreign ventures.

A short, stocky bald guy from New Jersey politely engaged me.  After about a minute, he looked hard at Rodney, then at Rodney’s big bag, and again at Rodney.  “Who are you?”

“I’m his business partner,” growled Rodney.

“Where are you from?” asked the rep.

“I guess I’m from around here,” said Rodney, studying me with a confused expression.

A second Sci Data rep glared at Rodney, full of incredulity.

“How does this work?” I asked, pointing to a contraption on display.

The guy from New Jersey either didn’t know or didn’t care to tell me.

What Carl hadn’t grasped was that these were mid-level flunkies; Sci Data’s top brass were ensconced in private hospitality suites, lavishly hosting state lottery directors.

Rodney and I retreated, strolling aimlessly for a few moments before beating a path the hell out of there.

“Man, that was just plain stupid,” grumbled Rodney, shaking his head.  “They could have at least told me to wear a jacket and tie.”

“What did they tell?” I asked.

“Tell me?  I didn’t even know I was coming here on a job until thirty minutes ago.  And I had no idea what I was supposed to do until I got here.”

“This isn’t undercover journalism,” I said.  “This is a friggin’ situation comedy.  Does NBC always operate like this?”

Rodney evaded the question.  “There are a lot of young producers who are nervous about doing a good job,” he tactfully replied.

As Rodney and I trudged around looking for Carl (he wasn’t where he said he’d be, another rule of undercover broken), Sci Data reps grouped around a coffee table glared at us.

“What a f--- up,” Rodney cursed under his breath.

When Carl finally appeared, I tore into him.  “This is not how you do undercover,” I scolded.  “This is what in England they call a balls-up.  We stood out like the Star of David on a Christmas tree.  We’re burned, it’s over.”

Carl didn’t get it so he questioned Rodney, who concurred with every word I’d said.

“We had a perfectly good cover story before you and your senior producer changed the rules five minutes before game time,” I vented.  “Had I posed as a UK freelance, as planned, I could continue returning for more throughout the convention."  I gestured at Rodney.  “And he would not have been out of place because that’s how photographers are supposed to look.”

Rodney grunted his approval.

Carl looked alternately dazed and surprised.

“I’m outta here,” I said.  “Good luck.”

I drove straight to Clair George’s house on Allan Road, and he ushered me to the back den. 

Clair rollicked with laughter when I regaled him with what had transpired, and about the sloppy state of network journalism.  

Clair had nothing against journalists, just didn’t like to talk to them.  He was an avid reader of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal every morning.  


If he wasn’t reading the news, he was reading a book, but always reading something.  Which is why it was such a cruel blow when, years later, he was robbed of his eyesight by macular degeneration.



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