March 21, 2013

Scott remains noncommittal on Internet cafe ban

As the Florida House prepares to vote on its bill to ban Internet cafes in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott told the Miami Herald editorial board Thursday that he had not made up his mind on whether to support it or not.

"Everything is on the table,'' Scott said, refusing to indicate whether he supports the ban that has emerged as the Legislature's swift response to the criminal investigation into the Allied Veterans of the World, a chain of Internet cafes.

Police have arrested 57 individuals affiliated with Allied Veterans and have charged them with illegal gambling, money laundering and racketeering. The $300 million for-profit operation allegedly donated only 2 percent of its proceeds to charity.  

Legislators have quickly attempted to distance themselves from the fake charity, announcing they would donate thousands of dollars in contributions to legitimate veterans groups and other charities. According to a Herald/Times analysis, Allied Veterans and its operators and affiliates spent more than $1.4 million on candidates and committees in the last election cycle, most of it intended to influence the Florida Legislature. 

The Florida House raced to agenda a bill last week by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, that would clarify the state law to ensure that anyone operating electronic sweepstakes machines, adult arcades and maquinitas are illegal in Florida. 

The bill clarifies that web-based gambling devices are illegal because they are deemed games of chance and not games of skill. Trujillo said he will ask lawmakers to adopt an amendment today that clarifies that promotional giveaways, like those offered by fast food restaurants or car dealers, and children's arcades will continue to be allowed in Florida.

The ban is expected to shut down an estimated 1,000 gaming centers that have operated electronic casino-like games disguised as a sweepstakes or arcade games.

The bill clarifies existing law by prohibiting electronic gambling devices for charitable promotions, updates the definition of slot machines to include network-based machines like those used in Internet cafes and bans machines intended to simulate casino games and slot machines.


March 19, 2013

Legislators rush to return tainted campaign cash from Allied Vets chain

Shamed by the notion that they may have filled their political coffers with more than $1.4 million in campaign cash from a phony veterans group facing charges of illegal gambling, the Florida Legislature is scrambling to save face by donating the money to charity.

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican slated to be House speaker in 2016, sent a letter to his Republican colleagues Monday saying that he’s giving away the $3,500 in questionable cash he received to a local veterans group. He suggested other legislators do the same and even attached a list of the suspected companies.

“The information that has come to light regarding the Allied Veterans group and their affiliates is outrageous,’’ he wrote. “These allegations of fraud especially in the name of those who risk it all in defense of freedom and our nation — must be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

Allied Veterans of the World and its 57 owners and operators have been charged with operating a $300 million racketeering, gambling and money laundering scheme under the guise of charity. A Herald/Times analysis found they used 60 different organizations and 34 individuals to steer more than $1.4 million to state and federal campaign accounts.

Investigators reported this week that one alleged conspirator, Nelson Cuba, former head of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, had $56,400 stuffed in a safe deposit box along with five million Iraqi dinars — worth $4,300. Police also seized $583,507 in cash, 59 vehicles and vessels, and froze $100.6 million in bank accounts, the Seminole County Sheriff’s office announced.

The list of politicians who were beneficiaries of the Allied Veteran’s political largess spans the political spectrum and reaches every corner of the state. More here. 

Absent a new accord, Calder and Gulfstream to race at same time

Eddie Plesa Jr. has been at Calder Casino and Race Course since the first horses hoofprints there. When the Miami Gardens track opened in 1971, his father was among the first trainers to set up shop.

Later, Plesa followed in his father’s footsteps, became one of the track’s top trainers, and supported the place in 1989 when it prevailed in a head-to-head racing battle against Hialeah — the only time in South Florida history that two of its three tracks ran concurrently.

“It was good to my parents,” Plesa said of Calder. “It’s been good to me.”

But Plesa’s long allegiance with Calder could soon end.

Unless a compromise is reached between Calder and Gulfstream Park, the two tracks will battle nose-to-nose starting July 6, a showdown that will force most trainers to choose sides.Mo re here.

March 18, 2013

Sen. Garrett Richter's Kentucky Derby ride offers a glimpse into Tallahassee's world

The head of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming has never served on a gaming committee and reminds people that he has a steep learning curve.

But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is a horse racing fan who flew to the Kentucky Derby with Internet café lobbyist Dave Ramba and two other gaming lobbyists last year, where they sat on Millionaire’s Row. 

“I have been going to the Kentucky Derby every year since before I entered the Legislature,’’ Richter, a six-year legislative veteran, told the Herald/Times on Monday.

Richter’s wife and business partner, Gary Tice of Naples, also attended the event. Ramba told the Herald/Times Richter was one of “at least 20 to 30 legislators and that many lobbyists who took private jets to the Derby for House and Senate leadership fundraisers” during the May 4 and 5 event.

Unlike most years, the session began and ended early last year because of reapportionment and the Derby weekend was a perfect venue for collecting campaign cash for most lawmakers. But the high-end fundraiser, at one of the most prestigious gambling events in the nation, also offers a glimpse into the comfort with which legislators mingle with the same lobbyists who seek their votes.

Continue reading "Sen. Garrett Richter's Kentucky Derby ride offers a glimpse into Tallahassee's world" »

Senate panel moves Internet ban amid vigorous protests from operators

A Florida Senate committee followed the House lead on Monday and passed legislation to clarify state law to ban electronic sweepstakes games operated at Internet cafes in strip malls across the state.

The move comes less than a week after a federal and state investigation led to the arrest of 55 individuals in Florida and five other states on racketeering and corruptions charges linked to gaming centers run by the Allied Veterans, a purported charity that gave only 2 percent of their proceeds to veterans.

The fallout also prompted the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll who previously represented the Allied Veterans in her consulting company and has led to one of the fastest legislative responses to a gambling probe in decades. 

The Senate Select Committee on Gaming voted unanimously to pass the bill, even amid concerns that there may be unintended consquences that could affect penny arcades for children and seniors. The House gaming committee passed a nearly identical bill on Friday and is expected to pass it on the House floor on Wednesday. 

The Senate committee spent most of the meeting laying the foundation for why the bill is needed this year, when they had planned to wait until next year to clarify the law, when they will attempt a sweeping rewrite of the state's gambling laws. 

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March 13, 2013

Legislators react to Carroll resignation, pitch Flores as replacement

Legislators reacted with sadness upon hearing the news Wednesday of the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll but wasted no time considering replacements. 

"Jennifer Carroll is a very dear friend and anytime you see a friend go through something difficult, your heart goes out to them,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. "I think she did probably what was the right thing to keep the governor’s agenda moving forward. And so it won’t be a distraction. But it still hurts. It hurts for her, it hurts for her family.” 

Gardiner said he served in leadership in the Florida House with Carroll. “I just feel for her and her family,” he said.

Gardiner also said that he continues to believe Florida should “do away” with internet cafes. “I think they’re taking advantage of loophole in the law,” he said. “I’ve been pretty consistent. I don’t want to regulate them, I want to do away with them.”

Hours after Carroll's resignation, some South Florida political observers took to Twitter to recommend Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, be tapped for the job. Their hashtag of choice: #Anitere4LT.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, endorsed that idea. Flores "has all the great qualities of leadership. She's got the background, the experience,'' Detert said. "Geographically she fits. Being Hispanic doesn't hurt in Florida. She's an attractive candidate, smart woman...I don't know if she's interested or where she stands."

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston called Carroll a dedicated public servant. "I'm very saddened by it,'' he said. "I wish the best to her and her family."

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said she was fond of Carroll. "She's going to definitely be missed in the Tampa Bay community because of her strong advocacy on behalf of the military and MacDill Air Force Base. We will miss her."
Republican Party of Florida director Lenny Curry, who is from Carroll's hometown of Jacksonville, called Carroll a "great leader for our party and our state.
"She was a terrific advocate for Florida’s military and economic development efforts,'' Curry said in a statement. "Her resignation is disappointing, but she made the right decision to protect both her family and the work she has done to move our state forward over the
last few years.”

Former Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who has sponsored a bill to last year to ban internet cafes,  continued his push to get the Florida Senate to agreed to the effort. 

"The Florida House voted to shut down these illicit gambling operations last year,'' he said in a statement. "The Florida Cabinet unanimously agreed. It's now time for the Florida Senate to act to end this scourge on our state."

His bill was written by the general counsel for the Seminole County sheriff, the office that first began the probe and helped to draw federal investigators into the search.

 -- Rochelle Koff, Kathleen McGrory, Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report

March 12, 2013

Update: Internet gambling probe of Allied Vets grows, arrests now in Florida

Update: Jacksonville television is reportiong that the sweep has reached Florida and the head of a local gambling non-profit was arrested there this morning. 

Jerry Bass is the National Commander of Allied Veterans of the World Inc. and Affiliates, Action News Jacksonville reported. He was arrested and booked into the Duval County Jail this morning. His arrest is the result of a six-year long investigation that spans throughout Florida and other parts of the country. Here's their report.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoman reported yesterday that one of Florida's largest operators of internet cafes, Chase Burns of Florida Gaming Promotions and the International Internet Technolgies, is under federal investigation for operating illegal gambling operations in Florida.

Here's the story by reporter Nolan Clay:

Federal investigators allege the owner of an Anadarko company is involved in an illegal gambling operation in Florida that made more than $290 million.

The owner, Chase Burns, 37, denies wrongdoing. “That’s not true,” he said Monday. “What we do is legal.”

His company, International Internet Technologies LLC, supplied gambling software to Internet casinos in Florida that posed as fundraising centers for veterans’ charities, authorities allege.

The company, also known as IIT, has been paid more than $63 million for its computer work for the illegal gambling operation, authorities reported.

An Oklahoma City federal magistrate judge Monday authorized a search of the IIT building in Anadarko for evidence of “conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, operating an illegal gambling business and money laundering.”

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February 28, 2013

Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors

The Florida House of Representatives released a new mobile app that House Speaker Will Weatherford said will “set a national standard.”

The app, reported by the Herald/Times yesterday, will allow users to track the legislative process on their mobile devices, with features like live streaming from the Capitol in Tallahassee and tracking of bills.

“This is the way that people are communicating with their government,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.

The app is expected to be released next week, as the 60-day legislative session begins.

Read more about it here and see the House press release here.

After the press conference, Weatherford took questions from reporters on a range of issues, including Medicaid, Citizens Insurance, the budget sequester and Internet cafes.

He brushed off questions about a potential run for governor against Rick Scott, while continuing to differ from Scott on the key issues of Medicaid expansion and across-the-board $2,500 pay raises for teachers. 

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me well,” he said about those who are whispering about a 2014 primary challenge. “I’m busy enough trying to be the Speaker of the House… I’m not thinking of any of that stuff right now.”

Weatherford did not specifically rule out the possibility, but said that he doesn’t “have any plans to do anything like that.”

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January 28, 2013

House also creates gaming committee, puts Schenck in charge

House Speaker Will Weatherford on Monday followed the lead of the Senate and announced the creation of a Select Committee on Gaming to study the path of the state into the perilous territory of gambling reform.

Named to head the effort: Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who also serves as Weatherford's powerful Rules Committee chair.

“The House Select Committee on Gaming will be charged with looking Florida’s gaming activity holistically to determine ways to improve the state’s oversight of the industry,” Weatherford said in a statement. “Under Representative Schenck’s leadership, I’m confident we can determine what changes – if any – are needed to develop a comprehensive policy for gaming in Florida.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has created a similar committee and assigned Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to head it. Richter, a newcomer to gambling regulation issues, has decided to move ahead by the end of February to hire an outside consultant to do a study of the impact of gaming in Florida and assess what economic and revenue impact any changes would have. 

Weatherford has agreed to split the cost of the study -- which Richter estimates could be as high as $400,000. His statement said the goal of the committee will be to establish a "unified, long-term policy for the future of gaming in Florida that serves the best interest of all Floridians" by the 2014 session.

Gambling issues have traditionallly been one of the most perilous hot potato issues for lawmakers to handle.

Legislators in both urban and rural areas of the state represent legacy parimutuel industries of horse and dog racing whose owners perenially ask the state to expand their gaming options to include the now-popular slot machines in order to preserve the jobs and revenue from their declining industries.

But legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have also acknowledged the appeal of the resort-gaming industry, led by the Las Vegas Sands and Genting, which promise handsome tax revenues and swanky resorts if the state allows them to bring full casinos to South Florida. 

Finding the balance between the two arguments -- as well as deciding what to do with the exploding growth of Internet cafes and online poker -- has been stumped lawmakers in the last three legislative sessions.

Adding urgency to this issue now is the state's gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which expires in 2015. Gaetz and Weatherford have acknowledged that they plan to renew or alter that before their terms end in 2014. 

“Gaming is an issue that requires a careful consideration of existing law before any decisions are made regarding the industry’s future in Florida,” Schenck said in the statement.  “I look forward to conducting a comprehensive review to set a long term vision for the future of gaming in Florida.”


January 22, 2013

Senate and House agree to one more study to determine fate of treacherous gaming policy

The Florida Senate Committee on Gaming continued to do what its chairman said was to “creating the foundation of understanding” for a sweeping rewrite of the state’s gambling laws, which is expected to come next year.

In an unusual move, Senate Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has reached an agreement with House leaders to pay for an independent company to conduct a study about the economic and social impact of the state’s existing gambling laws on the state economy and what impact of expansion or changes might have.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,’’ Richter told the committee at a hearing on Wednesday. He said the committee may not meet during the upcoming session as they await the results of the study and he expects  legislation to wait until next session.

The request for proposal will come sometime before lawmakers convene in regular session on March 5, he said. But the breadth and scope of the study, as well as who will conduct it, is still undetermined.

“A study can sometimes get you where you want to go,’’ said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who asked what the RFP will look like. 

“It’s a work in process,” Richter responded.

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