AARP cancels Florida sweepstakes, blames new state gambling law

Sorry, grandma and grandpa.

The AARP is blocking Florida residents from participating in its Perfect Path to Retirement $50,000 Giveaway and its forthcoming Grandparents Day Photo Contest because, the group says, of a new state law cracking down on gambling.

The law was quickly passed last month after the arrests of 57 people and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll in connection with St. Augustine-based Allied Veterans of the World, which operated a chain of strip-mall mini casinos or so-called “Internet cafes.”

To close what they said was a loophole exploited by some Internet café companies, lawmakers made sure to eliminate an exception for nonprofit groups that conduct sweepstakes.

But that word change, along with a few others, put AARP’s contests potentially in jeopardy.

“AARP Florida was surprised by the consequences of this new law,” Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida state director, said in a written statement to The Miami Herald.

“While we are disappointed for those of our members who won’t be able to participate in AARP’s contests or sweepstakes,” he said, “we are more concerned for how this could impact other non-profit organizations across the state.”

Johnson said the situation was an “unintended consequence,” but only Florida — a retiree-heavy state with the second-largest number of AARP members — won’t be participating in its cash-reward contests.

That happens with some frequency in the Legislature, which often passes laws to address one situation only to find out that another group is affected. For instance, children’s arcade rooms like Chuck E. Cheese could be operating outside of the bounds of the new law.

Still, lawmakers and legislative staff are skeptical, but they may entertain clarifying the law if need be.

They said the law was passed to go after Internet cafes and the popular coin-operated maquinitas (“little machines”) in Miami-Dade. It’s not aimed at AARP holding an incidental contest, said Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who sponsored the bill.

“We passed a law because we thought there was a terribly gray area, loopholes had been created to allow drive-by casinos,” he said. “So we tried to clarify what gambling was in state of Florida.”

Thrasher said he’d need to review AARP’s legal reasoning before commenting on the particulars of its case.

Thrasher suggested AARP contact authorities, including the attorney general’s office, if it’s seriously concerned about running afoul of the new gambling crackdown.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office had no comment. Scott quietly signed the bill and has avoided talking about some of its particulars.

When asked about the toll of losing an industry-estimated 14,000 jobs linked to the casino-style operations, Scott wouldn’t respond last month after he signed the bill.

"I have a jobs agenda,’’ he said.

Scott’s lieutenant governor, Carroll, was pressured to resign by Scott’s staff at the beginning of the 60-day lawmaking session in March when Allied Veterans owners and workers were arrested in a statewide sting.

Carroll’s former public-relations firm had done work for Allied Veterans, she has professed her innocence and no evidence has linked her to any criminal wrongdoing.

After the new law passed, police in some cities and towns began shutting down other Internet cafés and arcades. In Hialeah, police confiscated 72 machines from arcades that cater to the elderly.

But so far, kids’ arcades haven’t been touched.

“I’m not going to go arrest Chuck E. Cheese in front of a bunch of 6-year-olds,” Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez said earlier this week.

The AARP isn’t chancing it.

AARP has yet to announce the details of Grandparents Day Photo Contest, but it plans to give people the chance to send in and upload photos of their grandparents. The winner could receive up to $5,000. Runners up could receive other cash prizes.

The ongoing Perfect Path to Retirement $50,000 Giveaway is ongoing. The rules on the web are pretty clear. It’s “open only to legal residents of the fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia (excluding Florida) who are at least forty (40) years old.”