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Lottery Secretary's Success Dwarfed By Some Work Practices

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Lottery
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

When it came to the bottom line, there's no question that Florida Lottery Secretary Cynthia O'Connell was a success.

Under her four-and-a-half year tenure, O'Connell pushed up lottery sales to nearly $6 billion through an aggressive push of scratch-off tickets and an effort to expand sales to retailers who had previously resisted selling lottery tickets.

But it was the other parts of the ledger that led to her swift demise and the departure of another official in the administration of Gov. Rick Scott. O'Connell abruptly resigned Friday once questions mounted about her work habits and spending, including questions about her use of an agency credit card.

O'Connell, a department veteran and one time public relations firm executive, was not asked by Scott to resign. But she stepped down a day after a one-on-one meeting where the governor urged her to make a "decision in the best interest of her family" according to a Scott spokeswoman. She is remaining on the payroll until Oct. 1, but she is no longer in charge of day to day operations of the agency.

Hours after she resigned the Florida Lottery released credit card records requested by The Associated Press that showed she had used a corporate card on personal expenses such as groceries and visits to her hair salon and the dentist. O'Connell paid for the expenses, but records showed she was constantly behind on her payments.

Lottery officials also announced that they were suspending the use of American Express corporate cards that had been issued to 70 department employees because of the inquiry by The Associated Press. Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the decision to suspend use of the cards was made by agency officials and not ordered by the governor's office.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees gambling in the state, said the circumstances surrounding O'Connell's resignation will be scrutinized by his committee this fall.

"Obviously the Lottery has performed very well from a revenue standpoint, but we cannot lose sight that the Department of Lottery is a state agency like other state agencies," said Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island. "We have a high standard in the Senate for all state agencies, particularly when it comes to being focused on preventing waste and making sure operational expenses are kept in line."

O'Connell, who is the widow of former University of Florida president Stephen O'Connell, was one of the few holdovers who remained on the job after Scott won a second term in 2014. Scott kept her on even after the agency came under fire in 2014 after The Palm Beach Post discovered winning patterns that suggested evidence of fraud or criminal activity. The department wound up shutting down sales in several stores after the newspaper investigation.

In the last week O'Connell's vacation time and travel expenses had also come under scrutiny. Politico Florida reported that O'Connell had taken nearly nine weeks of vacation and had spent $30,000 on travel in 2014. Records obtained Friday show the travel expenses were approved by the governor's office, but sometimes the costs included extra fees because O'Connell would often alter her travel plans.

Her travel included frequent visits to sporting events such as football and basketball games where the lottery was a paid sponsor for promotional events held at halftime. O'Connell also made trips to lottery-related conferences in Boston, Dallas and Chicago although those costs were reimbursed by the lottery trade association.

But the travel records show a couple instances where the governor's office questioned O'Connell. After a trip to Philadelphia someone circled a $143 a night hotel bill and wrote "anything cheaper?" A deputy chief of staff to Scott wrote another time: "We need to keep expenses as low as possible on travel."

Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said O'Connell's travel costs were justified as part of "an incredible marketing effort for the Florida Lottery."

Ron Sachs, a close friend of O'Connell who runs a public relations firm in Tallahassee, also defended O'Connell's travel expenses as "reasonable." He said the lottery job was a "dream job for her" and that her success in raising ticket sales showed there had "never been a better secretary in the history of the Lottery."