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Government makes mistakes, too

Ronald K. Smith watched a TV commercial for the Texas Lottery and cried foul. Terry Swift received a warning letter from a law firm demanding that he pay a traffic citation owed to Dallas County, and got angry.

Both Texans say information from the government was wrong. And they decided to challenge it. Here's what happened.

Lottery commercial

The game is called Mega Jumbo Bucks III, part of a $2, $5 or $10 game that players like because it's a second-chance drawing. That means players can mail in their losing scratch-off tickets for another drawing. Last month, a Beaumont man won $1 million in a second drawing.

Smith, 66, a retired U.S. Homeland Security Department employee who lives in Fort Worth, saw two different lottery TV ads promising that if you have one losing ticket, you can send it in for the second drawing.

Then, he says, he learned that the television ads were not true.

"When reading the instructions on the back of the actual ticket, it clearly states that you need to send in TWO non-winning tickets in the same envelope for the drawing." Not one.

Smith had purchased a $10 ticket, meaning he would need to purchase another $10 ticket to qualify for the second drawing. He complained to the Texas Lottery Commission but was told nothing was wrong.

"Evidently, they are not taking this seriously," he said. "This is misleading and a borderline deceptive trade practice. The ad says one thing, and the ticket says another."

The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act prohibits sellers from misrepresenting to buyers what they are purchasing and how much it costs.

At my request, Robert Heith, director of media relations for the lottery, watched the two ads and shared the wording used in them:

"It says, 'If you don't win the first time, enter second-chance drawing to win from $1,000 up to $1 million.'"

The key phrase is, "If you don't win the first time..."

What would make it more accurate? A few Watchdog suggestions:

"If you don't win the first two times..."

"If you don't win at the start..."

"If you don't win after two tickets..."

Heith said he doesn't believe the language needs to be corrected. "It's not the Texas Lottery's intent in our advertising to mislead any of our players. Nor do we believe the ads are misleading," he said.

A few days later, I checked back with him. He hadn't changed his mind.

He added that the TV ads for the game are not running "at this time."

The ads were created by TracyLocke, a Dallas advertising agency. A spokesman told me that the agency was prohibited under its state contract from talking about its ad campaign.

Smith, meanwhile, plays other lottery games. The Watchdog wishes him luck.

Citation letter

Terry Swift, 52, of Arlington got a speeding ticket in Dallas County. He decided to contest the ticket and pleaded not guilty. His lawyer filed the challenge on his behalf.

Later, though, Swift received an "IMPORTANT NOTICE" letter from the law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, which collects outstanding taxes and other payments owed to Dallas County.

The letter warned that he had 10 days to pay $292 or "failure to make payment immediately may result in additional fees." The letter also mentioned the possibility of a warrant if payment was not received.

Three choices of payment were offered, none of which included challenging the ticket in court.

Swift directed his ire at the law firm: "Linebarger, nor anyone else that is hired by counties, should be able to send out a letter that makes people think they have committed a crime by not paying their tickets as of that date when their court date hasn't even been set yet. Makes you think of telemarketing schemes."

I checked with DeMetris Sampson, who runs Linebarger's Dallas office. She said Swift should not have received the letter because it only goes to those who haven't asked for a court date to challenge a ticket.

Dallas Justice of the Peace Valencia Nash (Precinct 1, Place 2) told me that the law firm was not to blame. The error occurred when a clerk in her office accidently put the ticket on the wrong list. She accepted full responsibility and apologized.

"She didn't do something right, so he had every right to be upset with this court," the judge said.

"People should ask for a supervisor whenever they have an issue so we can get these things rectified. It's unfortunate that sometimes the clerks just kind of cover themselves, may not always do the right thing. So we just try to do the best job we can. But I have to say that some mistakes will happen."

It's OK to ask a bunch of questions of your government. Indeed, it's necessary. Bureaucrats, like everyone else, make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes cost you money.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber

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