Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll’s abrupt fall from political grace — for questionable links as a past consultant to a purported charity that law enforcement uncovered was a multimillion dollar scam of Internet cafes — offers valuable lessons to legislators of all political stripes.
Will they learn from her resignation and push for long-needed ethics and campaign finance reforms or continue to go about business as usual, pocketing special-interest cash in a tangled web of public deceit?
The so-called cafes — and let’s not forget the so-called maquinitas so prevalent in mom and pop storefronts from Hialeah to Miami — have sprouted up like ragweed throughout Florida’s landscape. And legislators, as well as local officials, have been the enablers, claiming state law is vague and the “crime” unclear.
Here’s a clear picture: Allied Veterans of the World, the organization that authorities say secretly operated electronic slot machines at Internet cafes at 49 gaming centers across Florida and pocketed the money, donated $2 million to lawmakers’ campaigns and election committees over the past three years to fight off any attempts to close up their lucrative swindle.
A Herald/Times analysis found other chains of gambling centers, run by Arcola Systems of Florida, larded legislators with at least $864,000 in the past two years, too. Arcola is not named in the state and federal investigation of Allied, but the picture of an unregulated industry aided and abetted by the politicians who get their cut for reelection couldn’t be more focused.
Now Allied Veterans’ lobbyists are claiming they knew nothing. They’re running for the proverbial sinkholes, while legislators, particularly in the Senate, who in the past defended the cafes as a “jobs creator,” are rushing to pass legislation to finally make the cafes illegal and have the proposed law for the governor to sign by month’s end.
Of course, had Allied Veterans been a true charity it would not be allowed by law to make campaign contributions. But it found other ways through its vast Jacksonville network and through various states to shower legislators with cash.
The Florida Democratic Party got a $75,000 take from just one Allied-connected contributor while the state Republican Party got a nifty $52,000. Another $40,000 went to a political committee run by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and on and on. Even South Florida Democrats and Republicans were beneficiaries, though Allied didn’t operate in this area, including Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami, who has been pushing for “regulation” instead of banning the cafes outright.
Banning the cafes and the maquinitas is long overdue, but the real culprit here is an attitude in Tallahassee that sees no evil in having legislators, while in office no less, work as consultants and lobbyists for Florida businesses.
That was what brought down former Lt. Gov. Carroll, who resigned just as law enforcement closed in on Allied Veterans and arrested at least 60 individuals in Florida and five other states.
Ms. Carroll owned a public relations firm that represented Allied Veterans. When she served in the Florida House she also did work for the company. She even filmed an ad promoting Allied Veterans while serving as lieutenant governor. Now she may well have been unaware of any illegality in Allied’s operations. But the real issue here is the propensity of legislators to make extra money from their public “service.” Disgraceful.