In My Opinion

Another scandal in Tallahassee? You bet!

 

chiaasen@MiamiHerald.com

In Florida, not much is asked of the lieutenant governor.

It’s a sham job, devoid of responsibility. Your typical day is spent attending dull functions that the governor chooses to avoid.

Under the best of circumstances you’ll serve out your term uneventfully, and unknown to most Floridians. Under the worst of circumstances you’ll end up like Jennifer Carroll, a mortifying headline.

She resigned suddenly last week after federal and state agents began rounding up suspects involved with a chain of Internet cafes that allegedly served as a front for illegal gambling, racketeering and money laundering.

The organization had presented itself as a charity called Allied Veterans of the World, and had tax-exempt, nonprofit status. Under a typically porous Florida law, it was allowed to operate Internet “sweepstakes cafes” as long as the earnings were donated to charitable causes.

Over three years, Allied Veterans raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, but only 2 percent found its way to veterans’ groups. The rest of the money went to sleazeballs who bought fancy cars, boats and big houses.

Gosh, imagine that.

Carroll, who so far hasn’t been charged with a crime, owned a public relations company that represented Allied Veterans while she was in the state House of Representatives. Later, as lieutenant governor, she taped a glowing advertisement for the organization.

State records show that Allied Veterans was the major source of income for Carroll’s PR firm in 2010 and 2011. Her company is now listed as inactive, which suggests that it didn’t have a long roster of other clients.

The federal investigation of Allied Veterans started in 2009, though it’s unlikely that Gov. Rick Scott knew about it when he picked Carroll as his running mate. Politically, she had appealing credentials — a former Navy lieutenant commander, and the first African-American Republican ever elected to the Legislature.

Her troubles are more grim news for the governor, who has had a rocky time keeping top staff and agency heads. Carroll herself had been in hot water for racking up $300,000 in travel expenses during her first year in office, causing Scott to put her on a strict $10,000-per-month budget.

In this latest case, some of the GOP lawmakers who are disgruntled with Scott have their own worries. Investigators say that Allied Veterans donated about $2 million to state and local political campaigns, and spent $740,000 lobbying in Tallahassee.

Did anybody at the Capitol not wonder how a so-called charity could afford an army of lobbyists? Did any of the legislators give back the campaign contributions so that the money might be used to help military veterans?

The mass arrests last week were described as “the first wave,” and awaiting the second are numerous queasy politicians. So far, more than 60 persons connected to Allied Veterans have been busted in 23 Florida counties.

Currently the state has hundreds of Internet gambling cafes, and all of them are supposed to donate their profits to charity. The odds of that taking place in Florida’s anti-regulatory fog are microscopic. Prosecutors are aiming at several more companies.

The scammers at Allied Veterans certainly got their money’s worth from those high-paid lobbyists. Last year, the state Senate obligingly rebuffed a law passed by the House that would have outlawed the cafes.

Ah, but there’s nothing like a lightning sweep by IRS and Secret Service agents to bring on a moral epiphany. Now Senate President Don Gaetz and Gaming Committee Chairman Garret Richter are promising to ban the gaming centers as soon as possible.

Richter said that last week’s arrests “expedited the thinking going forward.” Translation: We don’t want to look like total sluts.

As a positive side to the scandal, Carroll’s resignation leaves Florida without a lieutenant governor. Scott says he’ll wait a couple months to appoint a new one, but there’s no hurry.

For 80 years the state didn’t have a lieutenant governor, and the public never noticed. Since 1969 the person holding that position has ascended to the governorship only three times.

Wayne Mixson served for three days after Bob Graham went to the U.S. Senate, Buddy MacKay held office for 23 days after Lawton Chiles died in office, and Jeff Kottkamp was acting governor for a couple of hours while Charlie Crist had knee surgery.

If you had Rick Scott’s hiring headaches, you wouldn’t fill that job anytime soon. An empty desk is a desk that can’t embarrass you.

Read more Carl Hiaasen stories from the Miami Herald

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