Nothing left to chance: The life of a lottery auditor

By Bryan Strickland

Imani Hudgins of Thomas & Gibbs CPAs (right) works regularly on NC Education Lottery drawings. Here, she inspects the lottery balls along with an NCEL draw specialist.
Imani Hudgins of Thomas & Gibbs CPAs (right) works regularly on NC Education Lottery drawings. Here, she inspects the lottery balls along with an NCEL draw specialist.

After marking several items off her regimented checklist, Imani Hudgins sits down in her darkened workspace for a brief mental break.

A recent college graduate and recent hire at Thomas & Gibbs CPAs, Hudgins deals with her share of prescribed paperwork.

"I think what scares people the most about accounting is numbers," she said. "But it's not just about numbers; it's about the bigger picture."

On this day, the bigger picture reveals a world much brighter than the stereotypes often ascribed to the auditor.

Hudgins' checklist contains agreed-upon procedures that she oversees in advance of the camera operators joining her in the Raleigh, N.C., television production studio. When the red light goes on, Hudgins stands just a few feet off camera to ensure that the live drawing goes off without a hitch.

Four days a week on average, Hudgins serves as auditor for the NC Education Lottery (NCEL).

Maybe it is about the numbers.

'Hungry disrupters'

"We have a team currently of six people that are working on that engagement," explained Shawana Hudson Spann, CPA, a partner at Thomas & Gibbs in Durham, N.C. "It's less traditional than the work that CPAs typically do, but it's certainly in the realm of what we do in providing independent verification, process implementation, and audit.

"I think it helps to make the work that we do more relevant to everyday people, making sure that there is a high level of trust in something that is a game of chance."

Spann oversees the human resources elements of her firm's work with the NCEL and attends a handful of drawings each year. When she joined the firm in 2002, she wasn't yet a partner and there wasn't yet a lottery in North Carolina.

But when the lottery launched in 2006, Thomas & Gibbs — founded just five years earlier — was a part of the NCEL team.

"You have these hungry disrupters in a particular industry. I think because we were a relatively young, inexperienced firm, our attitude was, 'Well, why not go after something like this?'" Spann said. "Now, it made for some pretty long days and weeks when the contract was first getting off the ground."

For the first couple of years, the firm's original three partners would work a full day, then on a rotating basis travel to WRAL studios in Raleigh to audit drawings 365 days a year, arriving by 8:30 p.m. and leaving around midnight.

"Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July," Spann said, vividly recalling earlier days when she was prominent in the rotation. "The time commitment was tough."

The drawings have doubled over time to include afternoon ones, but the Thomas & Gibbs team has grown as well. Eventually, the firm was allowed to train non-CPAs to audit drawings.

That's how Hudgins, who plans to sit for the CPA Exam, got her foot in the door — first with the lottery assignment and now as a full-time employee.

"Shawana came to one of my classes," Hudgins said. "She was talking about the changes that are happening with the CPA Exam, and then she explained that they had internships for the lottery. I was like, 'Wow, that's cool. I get to see that process, get to be a part of that process.' So I reached out, and that's how I ended up at Thomas & Gibbs."

'It was a long night'

On this day, like the majority of days, things ran like clockwork, and Hudgins and the others involved in the NCEL draws shut down the studio around 3:30 p.m. (though it was abuzz again less than six hours later for the night draws).

It's not that easy every single day, of course.

Last November, as Powerball prepared to draw numbers for a record jackpot of $2 billion, an issue with the processing of sales and play data from one of the 48 participating state lotteries meant that when the live national broadcast hit the airwaves, the lottery balls weren't bouncing.

"They were there all night," said Kathleen Brothers, CPA, a partner at Carroll and Company in Tallahassee, Fla. Brothers heads her firm's engagement with three national lottery drawings on behalf of the Multi-State Lottery Association.

"We have one person on our team who's just a really happy and enthusiastic person, and he was the one that was there, so I was happy that he got to experience that all night instead of me. It was a long night," Brothers continued. "I went to bed wondering if someone had won, then the next morning I'm texting him, 'Hey, are you still there?'"

He was. The engagement finally ended around 9:30 a.m.

Carroll and Company won the contract for Powerball when the operation moved from Universal Studios in Orlando to Florida's capital in 2012. Brothers has been involved from the beginning, and since 2019 she has helped take the show on the road.

In the first minutes of each new year, for three of the past four years, Brothers has been in Times Square to watch a different ball drop — the ball that determines the Powerball First Millionaire of the Year during ABC's broadcast of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest.

"We are in our studio waiting frantically to make sure that everything's ready to go," said Brothers, who because of her auditing responsibilities hasn't witnessed the Times Square ball drop even though it's just a few feet away. She has, however, witnessed Seacrest and Co.

"That's exciting. It is fun," Brothers said. "They've contemplated every year to have it like the Grammys where the auditor brings out an envelope with the winner's name, but they haven't done that yet.

"A lot of people have never even thought about the fact that there's an auditor there. It's kind of cool."

'A level of transparency'

The studio for the North Carolina lottery drawing doesn't feature clapping and confetti like the last New Year's drawing that made a North Carolina man a millionaire, but there's no lack of action before the lights and cameras come on.

Hudgins begins going through a seven-page checklist around 1:45 p.m. in advance of the 3 p.m. drawing. Around 2, she and the primary draw specialist and secondary draw specialist from the NCEL head toward a secure room tucked away behind the stage. After two of those three have entered unique security codes, the group enters the room to begin preparing the equipment for the draw.

Once inside, they congregate around a desktop computer, where an app randomly selects 11 of the 22 cases of balls numbered zero through nine that are locked in an adjacent American Security safe: three sets of white balls and one set of red balls for Carolina Pick 3; four sets of white balls and one set of red balls for Carolina Pick 4; and one backup set of white and one backup set of red. The app also selects which among three Pick 3 machines to use, which among three Pick 4 machines to use, and which of two consoles to use.

The balls — each one imprinted with a tiny number that must match its case number — and the draw machines are wheeled out of the room and onto the stage for three pretest draws. Throughout the process, Hudgins inspects and records results as Matthew Ford, NCEL security operations manager, looks on.

"I had no idea when I started four years ago that it was as in-depth as it actually is, the amount of care that is put into what we do," Ford said. "We want a level of transparency, a level of integrity in everything that we do so that players walk away feeling satisfied and fulfilled."

Next, a series of phone calls confirms that all is in order with stakeholders outside of the studio. Then, before you know it, at 3 p.m. on the dot, the live broadcast of the draw begins.

Accuracy checks, more phone calls, the logging of information, and the careful return of the equipment to the secure room follow the drawing, with the whole process completed around 3:30 p.m.

It's all for a 50-second broadcast that always includes these words:

"Joining me for today's drawing is our auditor from Thomas & Gibbs."

Twice a day, 365 days a year.

Without fail.

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Bryan Strickland at

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