The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday overturned the conviction of a lottery employee implicated in a nationwide cheating scandal, saying his trial over a rigged $16.5 million jackpot was tainted by unjustified delays in the investigation.
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The ruling is a victory for former Multi-State Lottery Association security director Eddie Tipton, whose lawyers argued that Iowa's long-running inquiry into the 2010 jackpot allowed the statute of limitations to expire. But it might have little practical impact.
Prosecutors had agreed this month to vacate the conviction under a plea agreement, regardless of how the court would rule. The deal requires Tipton to plead guilty in Iowa to ongoing criminal conduct for his efforts to rig other jackpots in Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin. Prosecutors are expected to seek a 25-year prison term for Tipton, 56, who also pleaded guilty in Wisconsin this month to rigging a $2 million 2007 jackpot under the deal.
Tipton's attorney, Dean Stowers, said the defense will review whether to honor the plea deal following Friday's decision.
"We are pleased that the court agreed that the State was not diligent and did not timely charge Eddie," he said. "We will be evaluating the potential impact of this decision on the pending charges."
Investigators say Tipton installed code on lottery computers that allowed him to predict the winning numbers on three days of the year. They say he worked with his brother Tommy Tipton, businessman Robert Rhodes and other associates to purchase and claim winning tickets from 2005 to 2011.
Friday's ruling was limited to the first and largest jackpot linked to Tipton, a $16.5 million Hot Lotto drawing in December 2010. Lawyers representing a Belize-based trust came forward a year later with the winning ticket hours before the deadline, but they wouldn't say who bought it. The Iowa Lottery refused to pay and requested a criminal investigation.
After the case hit a dead-end, investigators in 2014 released surveillance video of a hooded man purchasing the winning ticket at a Des Moines gas station in 2010. Colleagues told investigators they believed the man was Tipton, who was charged and fired by the Urbandale-based association.
Jurors convicted Tipton in 2015 of fraudulently trying to redeem the ticket and tampering with lottery equipment. The court ruled Friday that the three-year statute of limitations was expired on the tampering charge, dismissing it. The court said the verdict on the redeeming charge was tainted because the statute of limitations expired on two of three legal theories presented to jurors. The court ordered a retrial on that count, but that won't happen if the plea deal comes together.
Prosecutors theorized at trial that Tipton disabled security cameras in the drawing room and installed a self-deleting software program that rigged the outcome. Afterward, they learned that theory may have been wrong as they linked other jackpots to Tipton and his friends. An analysis of a Wisconsin computer uncovered code that allowed Tipton to predict winning numbers on May 27, November 23 and Dec. 29.
Justice Brent Appel faulted investigators for taking too long to try to interview key witnesses in Canada and Texas, saying they didn't pursue the case "with due diligence."
"It took over three years for the trail to run cold when that point could have been reached by completing two simple tasks," he wrote.
Division of Criminal Investigation agent Matt Anderson testified that his efforts were delayed by a busy workload, which included dozens of voter fraud cases assigned to him in the 2012 election.
After buying the ticket, Tipton passed it to Rhodes, of Sugar Land, Texas. Rhodes and Houston lawyer Robert Sonfield then passed the ticket to Phillip Johnston in Canada, who called the lottery in 2011 claiming he was the owner. Johnston later said he was representing a person who wanted to claim the ticket anonymously through the trust.
It took investigators until 2013 to interview Johnston, who identified Rhodes and Sonfield as being involved. Several more months passed before investigators traveled to try to find those two, who didn't cooperate. Rhodes has since pleaded guilty and has been cooperating with Tipton's prosecution. Sonfield hasn't been charged.