Guest Column: Why do you have to sell your privacy to win?

John Kass

When you heard about that Southern Illinois couple winning a $218 million lottery prize — and keeping it a secret for weeks — did you think about what you would have done?

Would you have tried to keep it a secret?

I thought, yes, sure, Betty and I wouldn’t tell a soul, not if I wanted to keep writing the column and keep our lives just about the same. With that cash, we wouldn’t have to worry about bills or retirement or sending our boys off to college, but we’d have to worry about our lives changing forever.

Perhaps you would have hoped to keep it a secret too, and perhaps it doesn’t matter when you win such a sum.

But Americans have a right to privacy. We expect that unless we commit a crime or file a lawsuit or run for office or seek the spotlight, we should be able to live our lives away from prying eyes.

And it is sad that Merle and Patricia Butler, of tiny Red Bud in southern Illinois, have lost that right. They had it taken away from them.

They kept things secret for weeks. They won that $218 million, their share of the big Mega Millions jackpot. But to claim their share, they had to go public. At least that’s what the stories said, that Illinois requires lottery winners to go public to claim the prize.

Now it turns out that the stories about Illinois lottery winners having to go public aren’t entirely true, and I’ll explain more about that later.

“We really enjoyed living here,” Merle Butler was quoted as saying, perhaps inadvertently using the past tense. “We don’t plan on living anywhere else.”

But the Red Bud they lived in a few weeks ago isn’t the Red Bud of today. Because today there’s a couple living there who won more than $200 million in the lottery, and everybody knows and nobody will forget.

Before the announcement, they had told five people, and the five kept the secret and didn’t leak it, and that astounds me. The silence is testament to the character of the Butlers and their friends. The friends promised silence. They kept their mouths shut. They honored their commitment and their friendship and their word of honor.

It seems to me that such people are the kind who most value the right to privacy. And though I’m a journalist, a First Amendment absolutist, I feel it’s a shame that they had to give up their privacy to get the prize.

Michael Jones, superintendent of the Illinois state lottery, said it’s a long-standing policy. The lottery wants the identities of winners to be public, in part to assure the people who play the games that there is indeed a winner and that the outcome was not rigged.

“Presenting to the public that there was a winner, that’s an important principle,” he told us Thursday.

My belief is that most of us know that Illinois is the most politically crooked state in the U.S., or at least one of the top three. And without public disclosure, folks might think the lottery winners were somebody’s somebody, making a score.

But, Jones said, there are exceptions to the rule about going public, at the superintendent’s discretion.

There was that woman who won a large prize but had an order of protection placed against an ex-boyfriend. She was allowed to maintain her privacy, a spokesman for the lottery said.

And that middle-aged couple with two teenagers who kept their $30 million prize a secret, even from the kids, and were able to set up a limited liability corporation to shield their identities. That was front-page news last November.

Jones mentioned a truly bizarre case of lotto privacy in the early 1980s. Six or seven finalists were drawn to have a chance at a million-dollar prize based on a horse race. Each finalist was assigned a horse at random to pick the winner.

The winner was announced, but when the prize was to be presented, the husband and wife had vanished. It turned out they were in the federal witness protection program, according to Jones.

“That’s the classic case of someone who probably should have remained anonymous,” Jones said.

In recent days, Jones has been considering allowing prize winners to keep their anonymity but allowing anyone to challenge it before an administrative law judge. He cautioned that this is only a rough idea at this point.

My belief is that Merle and Patricia Butler could have filed a lawsuit challenging their loss of privacy, but they didn’t, and now it’s too late.

So we called Steven Danish, a psychologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has worked with lottery winners on handling the pressure as their lives change. He said Thursday the loss of privacy is profound and often ignored in the rush to trumpet the winners getting all that cash.

“What happens when he walks down the street or she goes to the grocery store?” asked Danish. “You think people aren’t going to say something to them? ‘You’re still driving that car? You still have that house?’ It gives people the right to say whatever they damn please. And ask for anything they please.

“I think it’s going to be hard to live in a small town,” he said. “You lose your privacy.

“Not sort of, you do. It’s gone.”