National News

April 9, 2013

Gambling parlors spent widely on Fla. officials

ORLANDO, Fla. — Strip-mall parlors with slot-like computer games such as those targeted in a state racketeering and conspiracy investigation have contributed about $100,000 over the past four years to local candidates in Florida, including a sheriff whose agency was a part of the probe, according to a review of records by The Associated Press.

Nearly 90 local officials and candidates in 20 Florida counties received political contributions from the parlors — sometimes called “Internet cafes” — their owners and their political committees, according to the AP review of county-by-county campaign records.

On the state level, more than $1 million was contributed to officials and candidates by companies with ties to Allied Veterans of the World. The purported charity was a front for a $300 million gambling operation and gave just a small portion toward veterans, state investigators have said.

Some top politicians in Florida and North Carolina scrambled to give back the money or at least explain it. Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned last month after she was interviewed as part of the probe. She denies wrongdoing.

In local races that usually cost much less to run, the gambling affiliates and their owners donated to sheriffs, judges, mayoral candidates, county commissioners, prosecutors, clerks of courts, property appraisers and tax collectors.

The bulk of the contributions were in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, where officials received about $50,000 from the local parlors and their owners. The Jacksonville City Council in 2010 considered shutting down the centers. But city council members instead overwhelmingly passed compromise legislation that capped the number of existing cafes and required them to pay fees and be better regulated.

Allied Veterans and the owners of its affiliates fought hard against the crackdown in Jacksonville, hiring lobbyists and donating to candidates.

Among the largest recipients in Duval County was city councilman Richard Clark who received $3,750 from the Allied Veteran affiliates and another $1,000 from Floridians for Internet Access, a Tallahassee-based political committee with ties to Tallahassee attorney David Ramba. He is an agent for many of the political committees that represent the industry.

Clark said the donations made very little difference in the outcome of the vote on the Jacksonville ordinance, given their small amounts. During the debate on regulating the Internet cafes, “most of the heart-strings were pulled by the mom-and-pop small businesses,” Clark said.

Investigators last month said Allied Veterans spent just 2 percent of its $300 million earnings on veterans’ charities while its leaders spent millions on boats, real estate and sports cars. The 57 defendants, including some police officers, are facing racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering and possession of slot machine charges.

The Internet cafes scattered throughout the state sell customers time online at computer terminals that feature sweepstakes games that simulate slot machines. Some estimates put the number of gaming parlors in Florida at almost 1,000, and investigators targeted almost 50 affiliated with Allied Veterans. The defendants say the parlors are merely places where people can legally play sweepstakes games while using the Internet. But Florida legislators last week voted to ban the operations and Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill this week.

Donations from the cafes were made in Brevard, Broward, Clay Collier, Dixie, Duval, Flagler, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Leon, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia counties, according to the AP review. Donations to Florida candidates are limited to $500 per person per election.

Out-of-state gaming interests from Georgia , Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina contributed almost $25,000 to the local races.

Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford received $9,000. At the time, Rutherford’s agency was investigating Allied Veterans, along with other law enforcement. Rutherford said he knew some of his 2010 campaign donors were under investigation, but he decided to accept the money so the probe wouldn’t be exposed.

“We took the donations, business as usual, since we certainly didn’t want to tip off two high-profile police officers that they were under investigation,” Rutherford said.

After the arrests were announced last month, Rutherford said he made $10,000 in donations to two veterans’ organizations.

Jacksonville city councilman Clark said he knew some of the Allied Veterans business owners initially from their offer three years ago to pay for a city Veterans Day parade that was threatened by budget cuts. The city ended up coming up with the money for the parade. But he said he didn’t know all of the affiliated donors.

“At $500 a pop, the amount of checks it takes to raise $100,000, you just can’t know everybody,” Clark said.

Mario Rubio, a city council candidate and brother of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, received $850.

Candidates in Palm Beach County, where commissioners in early 2012 approved a yearlong moratorium on the opening of new Internet cafes in unincorporated areas, received almost $15,000. Most went to the local state attorney, Dave Aronberg. County commissioners allowed the ban to expire late last year.

A spokesman said Aronberg never took a position on the moratorium and said he knew of no Internet cafe cases that have come through his office since he was sworn in earlier this year. Spokesman Mike Edmondson said Aronberg believes he was supported by the Internet cafe interests because “he was more receptive to having a general conversation about Internet cafes at that particular point.”

“He wasn’t passionate for or against,” Edmondson said.

Groups affiliated with Ramba, the Tallahassee attorney, contributed more than $15,000 to judicial, commission and property appraiser races in Brevard, Leon, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Two groups, Floridians for Internet Access and Save Our Internet Access, were political committees.

In an email, Ramba said some of the contributions were made to candidates with whom he or his clients had a long-standing relationship. He said the committees were formed to participate in the political process, just like other businesses.

“Just because the State Capitol is here doesn’t mean the clients are located here,” Ramba said. “Many clients have individual local relationships.”

Many of the companies that made donations to local candidates had ties to Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, who investigators claim was the driving force in the Allied Veterans scheme. Mathis and his law firm gave more than $5,300 to local races. In an interview, Mathis said he didn’t direct the affiliates on how to make their donations.

“That was their decision,” Mathis said. “I gave them legal advice.”

Some candidates who received the donations from the gambling affiliates didn’t keep them, skeptical of why they received the money.

Text Only
National News
  • 10 Things to Know for Thursday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday.

    April 23, 2014

  • US weighs clemency for inmates jailed for 10 years

    The Justice Department is encouraging nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars to apply for clemency, officials announced Wednesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • High court tosses $3.4M award to child porn victim

    The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea to make it easier for victims of child pornography to collect money from people who view their images online, throwing out a nearly $3.4 million judgment in favor of a woman whose childhood rape has been widely seen on the Internet. Two dissenting justices said Congress should change the law to benefit victims.

    April 23, 2014

  • Airport security vulnerabilities not uncommon

    For all the tens of billions of dollars that the nation has spent on screening passengers and their bags, few airports made a comparable investment to secure the airplanes themselves.

    April 23, 2014

  • Deal signs bill expanding gun rights in Georgia

    Gov. Nathan Deal has signed legislation expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia.

    April 23, 2014

  • Indian film awards arrive in Tampa, Fla., but why?

    The so-called Bollywood Oscars have been held in Macau, Singapore, London — and now, Tampa?

    April 23, 2014

  • Indictment: Prosecutor targeted in kidnapping plot

    A North Carolina prosecutor was the intended target of an elaborate kidnapping plot, but the kidnappers looked up the wrong address on the Internet and abducted the prosecutor’s father instead, according to an indictment released Tuesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • Republican activists push party on gay marriage

    As bans against gay marriage crumble and public opinion on the issue shifts rapidly, some Republicans are pushing the party to drop its opposition to same-sex unions, part of a broader campaign to get the GOP to appeal to younger voters by de-emphasizing social issues.

    April 23, 2014

  • Missouri executes inmate for 1993 farm slaying

    Missouri executed an inmate early Wednesday only a few miles from the farm where prosecutors say he orchestrated the 1993 killing of a couple whose cows he wanted to steal.

    April 23, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Wednesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday.

    April 22, 2014