Internet cafe gambling case involving veterans group to go to jury
Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel
SANFORD — Today jurors will begin deliberating whether Kelly Mathis, a Jacksonville lawyer, is simply a very smart attorney or a criminal who helped a group of military veterans build a $300 million gambling empire that masqueraded as a chain of Internet cafés.
That six-member jury could return a verdict today on the more than 100 charges Mathis faces, including racketeering, conspiracy and possessing scores of illegal slot machines because of his work on behalf of a group called Allied Veterans of the World.
If the 50-year-old attorney is acquitted, it would be a major embarrassment for the state, particularly Attorney General Pam Bondi, who held a splashy news conference March 13, the day Mathis and more than 50 co-defendants were rounded up statewide, and described Allied Veterans as a major criminal enterprise that preyed on the public's sympathy for disabled military veterans.
It also would be a setback for Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who launched the investigation – dubbed "Reveal the Deal" - was its driving force, made one of his captains its lead detective and loaned statewide prosecutors two of his staff attorneys.
And it would be a head-scratcher for former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who resign under pressure the day Mathis and his co-defendants were rounded up because of her ties to the group: Her Jacksonville public relations firm had done contract work for Allied Veterans.
The key question for jurors will be whether the personal computers that customers used in Allied's 50-plus Florida storefronts were, in fact, slot machines or only looked and sounded like them.
Defense attorney Mitch Stone argued they were not. Allied's storefronts were Internet cafes, he said, in the business of selling Internet time at 20 cents a minute. If customers wanted to use Allied's computers to enter a series of lawful "promotional" games, including those called "Money Bunny" and "Wheel of Riches," they were free do so, he said.
The games, he argued, were based on computer software that made them legal under Florida's complex sweepstakes law, akin to McDonald's Monopoly promotion.
The trial began Sept. 16, and several repeat customers testified early on that they went to Allied storefronts solely to gamble.
"I don't know what happened to the Internet time. I never used it," said Jeanette Hickson, a 78-year-old Kissimmee woman who testified that she went to Allied cafes in Clermont every night and spent a total of $55,000 to $65,000 there.
Mathis is the first defendant to come to trial. Prosecutors characterized him as the brains behind the operation, but as the case against him progressed, weaknesses in their case developed.
Just before the trial started, the state dropped more than 50 gambling charges against him and during it, the judge threw out 50 money laundering counts.
That left jurors with 100 counts to decide.
Roughly a dozen co-defendants earlier negotiated plea deals. Most have wound up with sentences that require no jail time, including Allied's most senior company officials.
Several months after the arrests, Florida legislators voted to make Internet cafes illegal, and Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law.