The Sting

If you’re betting on the future of gambling in Florida, the odds are pretty good it will continue to flourish.

But try telling that to Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, who was accused of being the mastermind helping Allied Veterans of the World break the law and get away with it. Investigators said that Allied Veterans, which portrayed itself as a nonprofit, brought in $300 million but gave only 2 percent to veterans groups and that their Internet cafés were actually gambling operations.

It took only 15 hours for jurors to find Mathis guilty of racketeering, helping run a lottery and possession of an illegal slot machine or device — 103 counts in all. That’s about 6.9 counts an hour, if you do the math. Never underestimate the public’s disdain for attorneys. Heck, he was acquitted of one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Mathis contends he was merely giving legal advice and wasn’t involved in any illegal activity. He said Allied Veterans’ centers in about 50 Florida strip malls sold Internet time at computers that featured sweepstakes games — not gambling at all.

“Attorneys all over the nation need to be very afraid when six years after you give legal advice, somebody disagrees with that legal advice and they convict you of a crime,” Mathis said after the verdict. He plans to appeal.

Mathis could be sentenced to more than 100 years in prison when he faces Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester on Feb. 12. Mathis remains free until his sentencing.

Of the 57 people arrested with great fanfare, 29 received deals that include no prison time, and 27 await trail, including Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police former president Nelson Cuba and former vice president Robbie Freitas. Cuba and Freitas, who waived their right to speedy trials, have a hearing Nov. 26 and likely will not go to trial until next year.

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was paid $72,000 by Allied Veterans for consulting work while a Northeast Florida legislator, resigned after being questioned in the case but has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Former Allied commanders Jerry Bass and Johnny Duncan and computer software designer Chase Burns received deals that included no prison time, leading to speculation about the strength of the prosecution’s case.

“I have heard some talk that if we didn’t convict Kelly Mathis, our whole case would fall apart, and that was never true,” statewide prosecutor Nick Cox told The Florida Times-Union.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville officials say 16 Internet cafés have returned since the Legislature banned the storefront gaming centers in April, spurred by the slew of arrests in “Operation Reveal the Deal.”

Places like Pete’s Retreat Cyber Café on Normandy Boulevard, owned by William Carpenter of North Carolina, reopened with new software that no longer imitates slot machines, according to their lawyers. Whether police, prosecutors or legislators will agree remains to be seen.

“I don’t want to get shut down, and I really don’t want to get arrested,” general manager Pete Miller told the Times-Union in July. “But I’m confident what we’re doing is completely legal.”

Confident is a tricky term. Pete’s Retreat exists in the no man’s land of Florida’s gambling ambivalence. Gambling is illegal according to Florida’s constitution, but there are more exceptions to that law than possible winning numbers in the state lottery. Poker rooms, slot machines, horseracing, greyhound racing, jai alai, casino cruises, the lottery — not to mention bingo, penny-ante poker, arcade amusement games and game promotions — all have homes in Florida. The Internet cafés weren’t illegal until the Legislature closed that loophole after the arrests, after years of dragging their feet.

Bestbet Jacksonville poker room is the largest and most successful in the state, with 70 tables. From March 1, 2012, to Feb. 28, 2013, Bestbet Jacksonville collected $14,668,520 in gross receipts, according to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. The Orange Park location card room had receipts of $6,280,048.

It’s fitting that a Bestbet sponsorship runs in front of First Coast News’ online video about the verdict. It was luck of the draw, much like the games at those Internet cafés; a selection of commercials rotates in that spot. Some have said politically connected big names in Florida gambling were behind squeezing out the competition of gaming centers like those owned by Allied Veterans. If that were true, it sure took them long enough. But now, like snake eyes, they keep turning up.

Even those who never walk into a poker room think nothing of buying a couple of lottery tickets each week. The Florida Lottery rakes in more than $4.45 billion a year, with only New York and Massachusetts ranking higher, according to the Sun Sentinel.

You could see why an attorney might think his advice would squeak by, given Florida’s contradictory record on gambling. We don’t want it in our state, unless we want it. We keep changing the rules. Maybe the jury’s verdict had more to do with Allied Veterans wrapping itself in charity than with its questionable gaming software.

“It was an unjust verdict,” Mathis said, seemingly shocked by the jury’s decision.

Nothing’s shocking when Florida continues to walk the tightrope between high-minded and high roller.