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When people recall the McDonald's Monopoly scandal from the '90s and early '00s, it may seem like nothing more than a brief moment in the fast food chain's prolific history.
But as HBO's "McMillion$" lays out, it was a intricate scheme that required an equally elaborate – and colorful – investigation from the FBI, dubbed "Operation Final Answer," to uncover. And that wouldn't have been possible without FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews.
An eager young agent assigned to the FBI's "Sleep Hollow retirement office" in Jacksonville, Florida, Mathews worked with his mentor Richard "Rick" Dent and a dozen other investigators on health care fraud cases. One day, bored with his routine of looking into white collar crimes, he noticed a sticky note on Dent's desk with a tip: "McDonald's Monopoly Fraud?"
Mathews did some digging with the original tipster, who claimed that the game was rigged after three people in the Jacksonville area – all related to each other – won the $1 million grand prize. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux looked at the evidence, and when the statistics showed that a person had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than a family repeatedly winning this lottery prize, a more formal investigation into the fraud case began.
Devereaux quickly alerted McDonald's Global Security office that a meeting needed to take place in order to get a sense of whether the corporation was involved in the scheme. As proceedings began, Mathews made a point to make a strong impression ... by wearing a shocking gold suit.
"This part of the investigation was extremely boring to me," Mathews confessed. "I had it in the closet and I thought, 'Wow, this is a great opportunity to wear ... a golden fry suit."
He said that the McDonald's representatives seemed to enjoy the wardrobe choice, although Devereaux was less than thrilled about it.
"Rick always coined that I was the George Costanza, 'cuz Seinfeld was big back then," Mathews recalled.
The investigation continued as McDonald's was preparing to launch another iteration of the game, with the help of an outsourced marketing team at Simon Marketing. By the time the first winner was announced, Mathews had an idea: staging an undercover operation as a video production crew that would interview the winners, who agreed to appear in McDonald's promotional campaigns upon prize collection.
While some of his superiors were apprehensive, Tom Kneir, the former special agent in charge (SAC) in Jacksonville, greenlit Mathews' plan and granted him authority to go undercover without the stringent training typically required for such operations.
"Doug is one of the hardest working agents I've ever met in my life," Janet Pellicciotti, former special agent and undercover agent coordinator, said. "Very creative. He'll do anything, he'll try anything and he can talk forever. He is relentless."
Even on their first undercover outing with "winner" Michael Hoover, Mathews was thinking outside the box in his role as commercial director. He and his crew, including former FBI videographer Jan Garvin, went all over town to get Hoover comfortable enough that when his phones were tapped he would have no idea that federal agents were onto him.
"He was gung-ho from the get go," Garvin said.
Today, Mathews still works as a special agent for the FBI, though he declined Pellicciotti's recommendations that he transfer to the undercover team.
And as for that gold suit he wore to that first meeting with McDonald's officials? No word on whether it's still in his wardrobe rotation.
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