GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) — Richard and Mary Morrison have plans for their $165 million lottery jackpot: paying off their mortgage, opening a restaurant, and helping the poor, as well as Richard Morrison’s pet cause of celebrating the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
But authorities in New York’s Suffolk County have plans, too. They are seeking to collect nearly $1 million of the Morrisons’ winnings, saying the couple overbilled the county for homeless shelters they once ran.
“The money that is due to taxpayers is supposed to be paid,” said Gregory Blass, Suffolk’s commissioner of social services.
The couple did not discuss the $950,921.90 in question at a news conference in Garden City, where New York State Lottery officials presented an oversized check for $165 million.
“We’re not saying anything,” 59-year-old Richard Morrison said.
The couple opted for a lump-sum payment instead of $165 million spread out over 26 years, so they actually got $51 million each before taxes.
“It feels fantastic,” said Mary Morrison, 57, who has already bought a Lexus.
The dispute with the county grew out of contracts the Morrisons had over 20 years to run a network of homeless shelters.
Richard Morrison was the executive director of Love’M Sheltering Inc., which ran homeless shelters until going out of business in 2005.
A 2004 audit by the county comptroller’s office found that Love’M Sheltering owed $612,000.
Blass said the audit found numerous irregularities, including inflated salaries and missing equipment purchased with county funds.
The Morrisons challenged the county’s authority to audit them, but a judge upheld the audit in 2008. With interest, the sum that the county seeks has grown to $950,921.90.
The Morrisons’ attorney, Michael Solomon, said his clients owe nothing because the audit involved the nonprofit corporation, Love’M Sheltering, and not the Morrisons as individuals.
“This is the first time that they ever heard that the county was attempting to claim that Richard and Mary Morrison, as individuals, had any responsibility,” Solomon said.
“These are the most honest, giving people in the world,” Solomon said. “If they believed that this was their legal responsibility to pay, they would have made arrangements to pay a long time ago.”
Blass said the Morrisons owe the money and are “hiding behind the corporation.”
Lawyers for Suffolk County went to court Wednesday seeking to block the state from paying the Morrisons $950,921.90 of their winnings.
Solomon agreed to hold the money in escrow while the case proceeds. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.
The Morrisons met in high school, married nearly 40 years ago and said they will now treat themselves to the big wedding they never had.
Richard Morrison got down on one knee at Thursday’s news conference and asked his wife, “Would you marry me?”
A next-door neighbor, Stephen Garritano, said his family often borrowed milk or sugar from the Morrisons.
“They’re very nice people,” he said. “They were happy to share.”
The couple listed plans for their Mega Millions winnings in interviews with Newsday at their home in Miller Place, N.Y.
Mary Morrison said she and her husband would help disadvantaged children, while Richard Morrison said he hoped to back programs that encourage people to work their way off public assistance.
Richard Morrison said a top priority is financing his book about the Preamble to the Constitution, which he called “the most magnificent constitutional sentence in the history of mankind.”
Morrison wore a T-shirt with the Preamble written on it Thursday, but declined to discuss the book.
The couple also told Newsday they hope to pay off their mortgage and open a seafood restaurant.
Blass said the Morrisons can help the downtrodden by paying the money they owe. He said he would ask to have the funds earmarked for homeless shelters.
“We have hundreds of homeless families that could benefit from a windfall like this,” he said.
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in New York City contributed to this report.