Working undercover as just another aging patron, D. Robert Sertell watched as customers streamed into Internet cafes in strip malls across Florida to buy access to Internet time or long-distance phone service.
As a national expert on slot machines, Sertell saw that the customers visiting the cafes operated by the Florida-based charity Allied Veterans of the World were not there to surf the web or make phone calls. They came to play what he contends are illegal slot machines, complete with spinning wheels, cash payouts, and names such as Captain Cash, Lucky Shamrocks and Money Bunny.
Using a mouse as their lever, and “sweepstakes” credits as their coins, customers played games that were nothing more than sophisticated, computerized slot machines, Sertell concluded after visiting 41 cafes, from Monroe County to Duval County, in early January.
“The little old ladies, whose eyes were fixated on the screen, would sit and play. Their hand never leaving the mouse,” he told the Herald/Times. “They refer to it as a casino. Every one of those machines is rigged. It’s a game of chance.”
Sertell, 71, known as “Father Slots” in the casino industry, is a slot machine expert from New Jersey who has built machines, written training and repair manuals and has become the expert of choice for law enforcement officials who want to know the difference between a computer that is rigged to operate like a slot machine and one that isn’t.
He is expected to be a key witness for state and federal prosecutors in arguing that the electronic sweepstakes machines run by Allied Veterans at their 49 Internet cafes in Florida were illegal gambling operations, operating under the guise of a charity.
Police have charged 57 of the owners and operators of the gambling ring with racketeering, illegal gambling and money laundering. They have seized more than 400 computers and servers, 1,169 boxes of paper records, and 59 vehicles and vessels in six states in what they say is “phase one” of a continuing investigation into illegal operations at the gaming centers. Authorities allege that Allied Veterans and its affiliates made $300 million in profits but gave only two percent — about $6 million — of their proceeds to charitable causes.
The allegations have prompted the Florida Legislature to move swiftly to pass a bill to clarify the state’s sweepstakes law to make it easier for law enforcement to shut down the machines that legislators say are already illegal. The measure has passed the House and has one committee and a floor vote to pass in the Senate.
Proponents say it will give clarity to a murky state law that has stymied law enforcement who have attempted crackdowns for years as the industry fought back in court. Florida law broadly forbids gambling and machines that operate “any element of chance” except at approved locations, such as South Florida’s pari-mutuel facilities. State law also says it is “the duty” of law enforcement to “seize and take possession” of gambling machines.
But Florida’s enforcement of the law has been inconsistent as courts in some areas sided with the industry and its allegation that these were games of skill, allowed under state law, or sweepstakes contests no different than those offered on a Coke can or at a McDonald’s. Other courts sided with law enforcement that the electronic games were reconfigured slot machines and shut them down.