Owners of dozens of Internet gambling centers in Florida were arrested Wednesday as part of a three-year investigation into Jacksonville-based Allied Veterans of the World, a purported charity group that, authorities say, collected millions of dollars for itself and little money for veterans.
The probe led to the arrest of 55 individuals in Florida and five other states and prompted the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Two suspects remained at large Wednesday.
It is the “first wave” of Operation Reveal the Deal, which targets illicit slot machine operators who exploited a loophole in the state’s sweepstakes laws, Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said at a news conference in Orlando.
Targeted in the crackdown were owners and operators of 49 gambling centers affiliated with Allied Veterans of the World, an organization registered as a charity but which gave only 2 percent of its profits over three years to charitable causes. None were in Broward or Miami-Dade counties; three were in Monroe. Carroll’s consulting company had represented Allied Veterans until she became lieutenant governor in 2011. Police would not say whether Carroll received payments from the group while serving lieutenant governor.
“Their premise of charity is a lie — a lie to our citizens and a lie to our veterans,” Bailey said. “Our investigators believe that the reality is that each gambling center is operated by the owners of for-profit agencies that funnel the bulk of the money back to themselves.”
He said charges would be forthcoming next week against those in custody on suspicion of illegal gambling, racketeering and money laundering. He emphasized that there would be additional probes into other Internet cafes not affiliated with Allied Veterans.
The games operate by giving customers a prepaid card to play a “sweepstakes” game on a computer that offers a game with the look and feel of a slot machine. Winners of games with names such as “Captain Cash,” “Lucky Shamrocks” and “Money Bunny” rack up winnings and then go to a cashier to cash out their winnings.
Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, who launched the investigations that sparked the dragnet, said the operations of other gaming centers are believed to be “contrary to the law” but police “have delayed the pursuit of criminal charges against them so as not to jeopardize this investigation.”
Asked whether any other elected officials would be implicated in the probe, Bailey said: “That is one of the issues that is going to be taken up in the second wave of the operation.”
Meanwhile, the investigations prompted Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to introduce legislation next Monday that would ban Internet cafes in Florida. The Florida House last year passed legislation that would ban the gaming centers, but the Senate, concerned about the impact on jobs, refused to go along.
Richter said the Senate leadership had been supportive of imposing a moratorium opening new Internet cafes until the Legislature took a comprehensive look at gambling laws next year. But the revelations this week, he said, have “expedited the thinking going forward.”