What the hell is going on at the Minnesota Lottery?

About 24 percent of lottery sales goes back to the state.

About 24 percent of lottery sales goes back to the state.

How would you party if your job was to oversee hundreds of millions of dollars pooled from gas station scratch-offs? You'd travel a few times a year to “study” cutting-edge gambling in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and New Orleans, quite naturally. 

The director of the Minnesota State Lottery, Ed Van Petten, resigned in disgrace Friday after some inquisitive muckrakers at the Star Tribune found out that he was getting reimbursed about $300 a night to stay in his own timeshares when he jetted out of state for trade conferences. In total, he'd cheated taxpayers of about $7,000.

The Strib’s data request came after the Lottery canned an assistant director for being drunk at work. Johnene Canfield, who was Van Petten’s number two, sued to get her job back in October on the grounds that alcoholism was a disability that should have prompted more gentleness and care from her bosses. Her lawsuit also alluded to some lackadaisical fiscal management in the agency.

In 2012, Canfield was getting wasted on the regular at business conferences. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith called her an embarrassment, suspended her for 10 days without pay, and banned her from drinking at work events.

When Van Petten was hired shortly after, they became drinking buddies, her suit alleged. They’d drink at conferences and make business calls together from the bar. When other Lottery staff started whispering that Canfield needed rehab, Van Petten convinced her that others were overreacting and she didn’t need treatment, according to the suit.

In December 2014, Canfield was arrested for a DUI after drifting over the center line, crashing into another car and injuring its elderly driver. She was fired six months later — unfairly, she argued, because certain men hired by the Lottery had screwed up in the past only to be slapped on the wrist.

Don Feeney, a supervisor, once paid an employee $3,600 for days the employee didn’t work, according to the lawsuit. Feeney was only suspended for five days. Another employee, Dale McDonnell, was also suspended five days after using state time and resources on “private business.”

The recent bloodletting in the Minnesota Lottery is just the latest wake-up call in an agency that has long enjoyed a certain autonomy from government oversight. In 2004, a state audit discovered the Lottery was spending $2.6 million on an advertising firm owned by a friend of the then-director. In 2013, another audit found that some employees had the power to sign off their own timesheets, while others were allowed to gather frequent flier miles on their personal accounts. The Lottery also couldn’t account for a missing $85,000.