072: Lightning Strikes Twice

Stella Case No. 072, Originally Published: 7 April 2004

From 1997 to 2001, John Struna bought 40-55 tickets per game from the Convenient Food Mart in Cleveland, Ohio, in his attempts to win the Buckeye 5 lottery. By his own estimates, he spent $125,000 per year on the tickets.

He finally beat the odds: on Oct. 25, 2001, after buying 52 tickets with the same number, Struna won. Each ticket was worth $100,000. Except, the Ohio Lottery Commission pointed out, the 52 tickets didn’t add up to $5.2 million, since the rules for the game limited the payout to $1 million total. And since there were actually 53 winning tickets for that game, that $1 million would be split 53 ways, leaving Struna with “only” $981,000.

Screencap from a 1990s Buckeye 5 commercial.
Screencap from a 1990s Buckeye 5 commercial, via Youtube.

Whose fault is it that Struna didn’t understand the rules? Harry Singh, the owner of the Convenient Food Mart, said he gave Struna a copy of the lottery’s rules. Struna even kept them, carrying them in his pocket, says Singh’s lawyer, Gary Seewald.

Mardele Cohen, spokeswoman for the Ohio Lottery, says the rules for games are clearly posted on signs provided to ticket retailers and on their web site. Retailers are not required to give copies of the rules to ticket buyers, so Singh actually did more than what was required of him by giving Struna a printed copy.

Cohen added that it’s reasonably common for an individual player to buy 10 tickets in an attempt to get all of the $1 million limit, “but when we saw that someone bought 52 tickets, it didn’t make any sense to us.”

Attorney Seewald notes that every single ticket even has the $1 million cap printed on it. Between that, the rules folder, the signs and the Lottery’s web site, the Lottery “does a fairly good job of publicizing their rules and I think people have an obligation not to be damn idiots.”

Struna begs to differ. He says the Lottery Commission didn’t do enough to let people know there was a cap and, as an official retailer, Singh should have discouraged him from buying more than 10 tickets with any particular number combination on them. With the help of attorney Andrew Kabat, he sued Singh in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court demanding $100,000 in compensation for each winning ticket that was made worthless by the Lottery’s rule. He also filed suit against the Ohio Lottery, claiming false advertising, in the Ohio Court of Claims.

The case against the Lottery Commission was thrown out, but the Common Pleas jury ruled against Singh and awarded Struna $1.3 million. His attorney says the huge judgement “could literally destroy him.”

Struna is appealing the dismissal of his case against the Lottery. Singh says he will appeal too.

When faced with people wanting to buy something, lottery ticket retailers shouldn’t have to question the patron to ensure they understand all the rules. The tickets had the relevant rule printed right on them, but Singh went further and gave a copy of the rules to Struna — who chose not to read them. Should Singh have held Struna down and forced him to listen to him read the rules aloud? Of course not. But that’s the sort of requirement the jury would have us believe is reasonable by awarding a “damn idiot” more than a million bucks for refusing to read what is given to him.

Sources

  • “Lottery Player Wins Again, this Time in Court”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 25 March 2004.
  • “Store Owner to Appeal Jury’s Lottery Decision”, Associated Press, 26 March 2004.

Case Status

Actually, it was $1.35 million. Why so much? The award to Struna broke out as $250,000 in compensatory damages, plus $1,100,000 in punitive damages! Ruinous indeed. And clearly the court was in error.

The Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga County, ruled that the lower court indeed erred. Even if Singh or other employees of Convenience Food Mart did tell him that there was no cap, “Struna’s reliance on the misrepresentations of a person without authority to modify the rules negates any claim of justifiable reliance. Accordingly, the trial court should have directed a verdict in CFM’s favor.” But even more so, in my opinion, the $1 million cap was printed on the tickets every time he bought them! Additionally, the court ruled that “we find that [Struna’s] claim of unjust enrichment [by CFM/Singh] fails as a matter of law.”

In conclusion, “Judgment reversed and cause remanded.”

Be sure to also see the next section for a surprising update.

Update Source: Decision of the Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga County in STRUNA, Appellee and Cross-Appellant, v. CONVENIENT FOOD MART et al., Defendants-Appellants and Cross-Appellees (No. 84886), 21 April 2005. (Source of the winning payouts: my calculator.)

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

Struna was actually very lucky he did buy 52 tickets for that particular game: he ended up with 52/53 of the $1 million cap, or $981,132.07. Had he bought just 10 rather than be a “damn idiot,” he would have won 10/11 of the cap, or $909,090.91 — a difference of $72,041.16.

The Ohio Lottery discontinued the Buckeye 5 game in October 2004, replaced with Rolling Cash 5.

But Wait, There’s More!

Thanks to a comment from a reader (below), it’s now clear there’s plenty more to Struna’s story. In August 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Struna had been charged in the fraud of a credit union to the tune of $2.3 million.

“Most people learn early in life that there is no such thing as free money,” said Steven M. Dettelbach, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “This defendant is charged as part of a group that used others’ hard earned savings as a personal piggy bank. Mr. Struna’s greed has caught up with him with this indictment.”

No such thing as free money?! That’s all Struna could ever think about! That $2.3 million is about 10 percent of the credit union’s assets.

He was aided and abetted, the DOJ said in January of that year, by Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union CEO Alex Spirikaitis, 51, and the total fraud was around $15 million — well over 60 percent of the CU’s $24 million in assets, which drove the depository into bankruptcy.

“Spirikaitis caused Taupa to make approximately 38 false and fraudulent wire transfers into Struna’s personal accounts between 2007 and 2013,” the DOJ press release says. “During that time, Struna repaid only approximately $15,000, according to the information.”

Spirikaitis fled and couldn’t be found …until Struna ratted him out in hopes of getting a little favor from the judge.

Struna pleaded guilty to all charges, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, making false statements, and multiple counts money laundering, and told U.S. District Judge James Gwin, “I’m willing to take full responsibility for my actions.”

In February 2015, Gwin sentenced Struna, then 52, to 43 months in prison, payment of full restitution, forfeiture of his business, car, and a Florida condo — all of which he had purchased with the proceeds of the fraud — and three years of probation after release. Gwin had previously sentenced Spirikaitis to 10 years in prison.

Several other co-conspirators, including a contract bookkeeper for the credit union, were also sentenced in the case.

As for taking “full responsibility” for his actions, even though he pleaded guilty, two years later Struna filed a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that “his federal convictions are constitutionally infirm because of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.” Interestingly, that motion was heard by …Judge Gwin. I’m unclear whether that’s normal, or unusual.

But Gwin ruled that the law Struna was using to attempt to appeal his conviction had a “one-year statute of limitations” for such petitions. As for loopholes in that time limit, “Struna has not demonstrated diligent pursuit of his rights, and he has not demonstrated extraordinary circumstances that prevented timely filing,” as required for an extension.

“For the reasons stated in this opinion,” Judge Gwin ruled, “this Court DENIES Struna’s petition. There is no basis upon which to issue a certificate of appealability.”

But Wait, That’s Still Not All!

In February 2015, shortly after Struna was sentenced to prison, Credit Union Times reported something rather extraordinary.

The money Struna took from the credit union were for “expenses” due to Struna’s business failures. Those “expenses included, among other things, Mr. Struna’s expenditures on lottery tickets, which he believed would help him repay most if not all of the funds he had borrowed from Taupa [Credit Union],” Struna’s lawyer, Richard H. Blake, wrote in a sentencing memo to Judge Gwin. “Mr. Struna did in fact win the Ohio lottery on two occasions, one time winning one million dollars.” (Emphasis added.)

But Struna didn’t contribute the winnings toward his restitution: he used it to pay his lawyer!

Whatever was left evidently went toward restitution. But hey, he takes full responsibility! Presumably he is now out of prison. Let’s hope he indeed paid the restitution to his victims, the 1,100 members of the credit union.

Sources:

  • “Former CEO of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union Charged for $15 Million Fraud”, U.S. Dept of Justice, 15 January 2014.
  • “Concord Township Man Indicted For Defrauding Cleveland Credit Union Out Of $2.3 Million”, U.S. Dept of Justice, 20 August 2014.
  • “Concord Township Businessman Sentenced to Prison for Defrauding Collapsed Lithuanian Credit Union”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 23 February 2015, updated 12 January 2019.
  • “OPINION & ORDER: Struna v United States of America”, United States District Court Northern District of Ohio, 6 March 2017 (PDF).
  • “Taupa Lithuanian Felon Forfeits $1M Lotto Ticket”, Credit Union Times, 24 February 2015 (retrieved from Archive.org).

Letters

The case of the mortgage company suing a customer for “allowing” a fraudster to rack up debt in their name (a fraud enabled by the mortgage company itself) brought a ton of mail. Below is just a sample.

I mentioned bad publicity. Indeed several readers noted they had mortgages with Homecomings and said they would be, or are at least are thinking about, refinancing to get away from them. That is indeed a powerful statement to make, and I applaud all of you for making it. But it’s only truly effective if you tell them why. Letting companies know you’re not going to do business with them anymore because they abuse the courts (and their customers!) by suing over silly matters can go a long way toward stopping their behavior.

Douglas in Washington, D.C.: “This [case] confuses me. I thought the True Stella Awards were about actual cases, heard before an actual judge in an actual court. I thought they were about the drivel that judges actually permit themselves to hear, not stuff that gets thrown out before the judge ever sees it.”

Douglas is confused. TSA is about actual cases that are filed, and this one definitely was, demanding $74,000 from the victims of the identity theft. Such cases may or may not make it to trial; TSA is about the abuse of the civil court system, not of the trial process. As the defendants in TSA #71 found out very clearly, one doesn’t not have to lose, or even go to trial, to suffer significant damages; even though their case was withdrawn after a mere month, they were still out $5,000 and countless hours of time.

That’s quite important: it’s part of my point. TSA’s critics often say that frivolous suits aren’t really a problem since the judges will usually throw them out very quickly. Here’s a case that was withdrawn well before the judge saw it, and the victims are still on the hook for $5,000. How can the average person afford that kind of money, and often plenty more, to fight off an outrageously frivolous case? Most can’t!

Dan in California: “I must disagree with your opinion that the Korinke’s had good legal representation. I am not an attorney but it seems transparent to me that their attorney did not properly represent them. I believe he did not zealously defend them by filing a cross-complaint against Homecomings Financial in Texas for abuse of process and for his attorney’s fees. Homecomings Financial knew or should have known that they did not properly notify the Korinke’s of their claim. Most likely, the suit was filed so that Homecomings Financial could collect from their insurance company for the fraud committed by the identity theft.”

There’s not enough information in the source story I used to come to a conclusion about this. The Korinkes’ lawyer, Mari Frank (who I take to be a woman), is subject to the client’s wishes. She may well have told them they could recover huge damages from Homecomings, but they may have said they didn’t want to, or couldn’t face the years of litigation. Or, indeed, they could be working on a suit at their leisure. My conclusion, based on the fact that she did get the finance company to drop the suit so quickly, is that she is clearly very competent. So I’m not going to second-guess the Korinke’s decision on how to proceed from there.

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3 Comments on “072: Lightning Strikes Twice

  1. The case of John Struna’ lottery winnings goes a little further than just that one court case. The lottery tickets were purchased with money ($2.3 million) he embezzled from a credit union of which he was an officer, and subsequently bankrupted the CU. The Federal court for embezzlement case had Struna forfeit the lottery winnings, as well as his restaurant he owned and ran, and a condo in Florida.

    Woo! Thanks for the tip! The “2021 Thoughts” has the information now. -rc

    Reply
  2. My math isn’t great, but wouldn’t he have made more with far less hassle if he’d simply invested the annual $125K? Was he addicted to the adrenalin rush while awaiting results of either a game or his court case?

    Hard to say without knowing for how many years he spent that …and whether he’s telling the truth about the amount. -rc

    Reply
  3. God. This guy was such a scumbag. And an idiot, too! He has a severe, nay CRIPPLING gambling problem that has destroyed his life and yet he remains unrepentant about it!

    Reply

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