TALLAHASSEE -- Florida sheriffs had pleaded for years with the Legislature to close the loophole that fueled the fastest expansion of illegal gambling in decades — so-called “Internet cafes.”
Legislators squabbled. Bills languished or failed. But the delay paid off — for lawmakers and the industry.
Threatened with being shut down, the owners and operators flooded lawmakers with campaign cash and hired a stable of lobbyists with money that police now say was illegally obtained. Among the biggest contributors was Allied Veterans, the purported charity organization that authorities said this week secretly operated electronic slot machines at Internet cafes at 49 gaming centers across Florida.
Allied and related companies donated $2 million to the lawmakers’ campaigns and committees over at least three years, police say.
An analysis by the Herald/Times found that Allied, however, was not alone in writing large checks to political candidates. Another chain of gambling centers, run by Arcola Systems of Florida, layered at least $864,000 in checks on legislators in the last two years. Arcola is not named in the state and federal investigation of Allied.
With federal and state investigators now preparing indictments on racketeering and corruption charges, the same politicians who have quietly accepted industry checks are prepared to pass a bill to ban Internet cafes.
The House Gaming Committee will take up a bill to ban the gaming centers on Friday; a similar bill will be taken up in the Senate on Monday. Legislative leaders said they hope to get a bill on the governor’s desk by the end of the month.
‘closed our eyes’
“We are finally seeing what an epidemic this is that as elected officials we’ve closed our eyes to,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, sponsor of the House bill. “Seeing the amount of money these institutions made and stole from some of the most vulnerable in our state is really sad.”
Lobbyists working for Allied Veterans say they were misled, and have resigned. And the politicians are suggesting they may even return the campaign contributions.
Allied Veterans, which as a charity organization was not allowed to make campaign contributions, often channeled checks through the owners of its affiliated gaming centers and the head of the company that provided the slot machine software, Chase Burns, the Herald/Times found. Burns, owner of International Internet Technologies, used five different companies to shower legislators with $283,000 in the last two years alone.
He gave $75,000 to the Florida Democratic Party, $52,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $40,000 to the political committee run by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and $25,000 to the political committee controlled by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City. Burns also made multiple contributions to individual lawmakers and often skirted the $500 cap by sending checks from various companies he controls.
The Associated Press reported that key players behind Allied pumped more than $1 million into the campaign accounts of politicians. Among them: Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. He has been pushing a bill to regulate the Internet cafes instead of banning them.
“There’s no way for any of us to know what’s going on behind closed doors or with these individuals,” Diaz de la Portilla told the AP.