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Lottery officials suspect retailer of stealing tickets, acting as a broker

Chirag Parmar lost his ability to sell lottery tickets after cashing in on a high number of winning scratch-off tickets like these.

Chirag Parmar lost his ability to sell lottery tickets after cashing in on a high number of winning scratch-off tickets like these.

ST. PETERSBURG — Chirag Parmar doesn't play the Florida Lottery anymore.

Nearly three months after state lottery officials stripped him of the right to sell lottery tickets at his seven Pinellas convenience stores and gas stations, Parmar has sworn off the shiny scratch-off tickets that jeopardized his career and family.

"I can't lose all that for a stupid habit of mine," said Parmar, 36, of Seminole.

Before Parmar quit, he was either incredibly lucky or breaking the law.

In a seven-year period, Parmar won 32 times — a pattern of jackpots that lottery officials consider statistically improbable.

His prizes totalled $38,138.50 between September 2006 and June 2013.

Parmar was not charged with a crime. However, based on his wins, lottery officials said they suspect he either stole tickets or acted as a broker for people who didn't want to cash in themselves, which can also lead to criminal charges in some circumstances.

They interviewed Parmar in May, and according to an investigative report, decided his answers didn't square with the data.

A lottery investigator who called Parmar asked him why he had waited so long to cash many of the tickets, sometimes months. Parmar replied that there was no reason in particular: He just gathered them up and cashed them when he had time.

Parmar told the investigator that he buys most of his tickets from his stores, the report said, but an analysis found most were purchased elsewhere and nearly a third had been scanned at another store before popping up at one of Parmar's.

Often, brokers will cash winning tickets — for a fee — for people trying to collect cash without paying taxes, child support or other costs associated with hitting the jackpot.

"The number of wins that he had, we didn't feel that he was forthcoming or truthful," said lottery spokesman Connie Barnes.

Parmar vehemently disputes that conclusion. He said he has studied lottery odds online and plays smart and always with his own money.

He lost plenty of money, too, he said, buying scads of $10, $20 and $25 tickets.

"I believe I haven't done anything wrong, I've just been a victim of it," he said.

The loss of his machines, Parmar said, has hurt his businesses. But even though he'll likely never again get a license to sell lottery tickets, he's reluctant to sue.

"It's like fighting an elephant, and I'm just a little ant," Parmar said.

Lottery officials decided they didn't have enough to seek criminal charges against Parmar, but they did remove the machines from his stores.

The lottery started aggressively monitoring frequent winners whose scores defy statistical probability this spring, after a Palm Beach Post investigation revealed a pattern of people pocketing relatively modest wins, thereby flying under the radar of regulators. The Post looked at the most prolific winners statewide and found that most were store owners. The neighborhood "ticket brokers" helped winners avoid taxes, even drug lords laundering money, the Post found.

Since then, the Florida Lottery has suspended licenses from 21 retailers across the state.

Lottery officials didn't suspend anyone else with as many stores as Parmar, who has ownership interests in seven stores in St. Petersburg, Largo, Seminole, Pinellas Park and Clearwater, said Barnes.

Most of Parmar's stores are older. None appeared busy when a Times reporter recently visited the stores. Across the street from Parmar's Exxon station at 5800 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, Circle K store manager Joey Stone said he has noticed an uptick in lottery sales since Parmar lost his license.

John Leone, 67, played the lottery at Parmar's store there frequently. When the machines disappeared and he couldn't get a straight answer from the clerks, he figured something fishy had gone on.

"When all of a sudden a place doesn't sell anymore, you figure the agent was doing something wrong," said Leone, who lives in St. Petersburg. "The agent would tell me that they were getting them back in a week. Then it was two weeks."

"I always wondered why," Leone said. "Now I know."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago

.Fast facts

Machines removed

Chirag Parmar's stores that have lost their lottery licenses:

• Rainbow Food Mart, 8592 49th St. N., Pinellas Park

• Park Street Gas Kwik, 5399 Park St. N, St. Petersburg

• 49th Street Mobil, 825 49th St. N, St. Petersburg

• Central Avenue Exxon, 5800 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

• Clearwater Sunoco, 11600 U.S. 19, Clearwater

• Mini Market, 7875 137th St., Seminole

• Bryan Dairy Rally, 7690 Bryan Dairy Road, Largo

Lottery officials suspect retailer of stealing tickets, acting as a broker 08/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2014 10:11pm]
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