$1 Million in Prize Money Caught Between Charity and Bankruptcy Court

Photo: The $1 million question

It was the million-dollar question on the show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and Kathy Cox, Georgia's top educator as the state superintendent, was competing on behalf of her favorite charity. Her answer was correct -- Queen Victoria was indeed the longest reigning British monarch. Cox won the prize and promised to donate it to three Georgia schools for the deaf and blind.

Cox says there was never any confusion about what her million-dollar prize money was intended for. She even named the schools while taping the episode.

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"If anybody watched the show, it's very clear that I was there because I'm the state superintendent of schools," she said. "I talked about those schools and playing for those kids several times during the show."

But since the show aired a year ago, the construction business of Cox's husband went under. The couple filed for bankruptcy, and as a result, their creditors are suing for the million-dollar winnings that were meant to go to charity.

Cox says that's just not fair.

"Was it a miracle that this happened? That I went on a game show and won a million dollars? Absolutely. But as I said to my husband, it's not our miracle," she said.

Lawyers for her husband's creditors say they are owed more than $3 million, and that the money she won is fair game.

"I feel that it is outrageous, quite frankly, when we had taxpayer dollars come and bail out all banks," Cox said. "Here I am trying to take $1 million and put it to the use of education of our students with disabilities, and they want to get their hands on that."

The documents in the case aren't clear. The prize money was originally supposed to be sent to her home address instead of directly to the schools. Cox had set up a trust for the funds. If Cox actually took custody of the money, legally the creditors could be entitled to it. But in documents Cox signed before appearing on the program, the episode on which Cox competed was clearly characterized as a "charity episode," or "charity event."

"I understand that money is just money, but it could make a big difference for these deaf, hard of hearing and blind children," said Amy Cohen Efron, a member of the Georgia Association for the Deaf. "If that money arrives at the schools, it could make a big difference in the lives of these children."

Parents and Students Protest

Cox says she chose to compete for the three Georgia schools for another important reason: several years ago, the state superintendant who preceded her was jailed for stealing more than half a million dollars from these same schools for the deaf and blind.

Parents and friends of the students are protesting. At one of the schools where the money was headed, the athletes don't have uniforms, and students who can't get into college need job training. The schools are funded by state dollars, so they aren't able to collect local tax money.

"For some of these students, getting scholarships to college or incentives for job placements or even to be involved in basketball games or track or cheerleading would literally change their lives," said Kenney Moore, school director of Atlanta Area School for the Deaf.

Brittney Brown, a senior and president of the student council at one of the schools said, "I know that she won that money in order to give it to the deaf students, and here we are waiting."

Waiting, any day now, for the bankruptcy judge to decide just who won the money -- the students or the bill collectors.

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