TALLAHASSEE -- Three operators of Internet cafes stood before the Florida Senate Gaming Committee last month and urged them to have mercy on their industry.
They told them of the job-creating potential of their business, their practice of offering free meals and free food to patrons, and how their gaming centers were favorite destinations for senior citizens.
What they didnt tell them about was their past brushes with the law from larceny, grand theft, check kiting and witness tampering to arrests for operating illegal gambling houses in violation of Florida law.
Under Florida law, owners and operators of Internet cafes do not have to pass any criminal background checks to be in business. And only those companies that operate electronic sweepstakes games with prizes valued at more than $5,000 must register with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Adult arcade operators do not have to register at all.
The law is very vague, put in place for McDonalds monopoly games, said Erin Gillespie, a department spokeswoman. It was never meant to be a loophole for gambling. The law doesnt have a lot of teeth to it.
Mary Lucas, the manager of the Shooting Stars Sweepstakes in Mineola, warned the committee that they would be putting 16,000 of us out of work.
I have a family. My employees have families. We pay taxes and we are family to our customers, said Lucas, 47, who also lists her last name as Gordon, and has seven misdemeanor worthless check charges against her and was convicted of embezzling $1,800 in Virginia in 1999. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Peter Bouzianis, 37, of Daytona, an attendant at Tel-Connect, an Internet café in Daytona, said his wife owns the company, which he described as a retail business that sells domestic and long distance phone time.
His Florida Department of Law Enforcement criminal history record includes convictions for assault, misdemeanor battery, witness tampering and three separate domestic violence charges in the last seven years. He could not be reached for comment.
Tami Patel, 42, owner of Lucky Ducks II, an Internet cafe in Spring Hill, has been charged with 45 counts of operating illegal slot machines after the Pasco County sheriff raided one of her Internet cafes 10 days after it opened in 2011. Her case is pending in court.
Patel came to Florida after 33 years in Las Vegas to start the Internet cafe business and now believes she was trapped by a confusing state law.
Internet cafes have come under intense scrutiny following the news that federal and state authorities effectively shut down 49 Internet cafes operated by Allied Veterans of the World. Authorities say organizers were running a $300 million for-profit business, using illegal slot machines, laundering money and disguising themselves as a charitable organization. Nearly 60 people have been charged with racketeering and corruption. In reaction to the case, the Florida Legislature has moved swiftly to clarify state law to make it easier for law enforcement to shut down the illegal machines used by Internet cafes, South Floridas adult arcades and Miamis maquinitas.
The bill, HB 155, has passed the House 108-7 and a nearly-identical measure, SB 1030, is scheduled to come up for a first vote on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.