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Legislators scramble to distance themselves from operations and cash of Internet cafes

Florida sheriffs have pleaded for years with the Legislature to close the loophole that fueled the fastest expansion of illegal gambling in decades — so-called "Internet cafes."

Legislators squabbled. Bills languished or failed. But the delay paid off — for lawmakers and the industry.

Threatened with being shut-down, the owners and operators flooded lawmakers with campaign cash and hired a stable of lobbyists with money that police now say was illegally obtained. Among the biggest contributors was Allied Veterans, the purported charity organization that authorities said this week secretly operated electronic slot machines at Internet cafes at 49 gaming centers across Florida.

Allied and related companies donated $2 million to the lawmakers’ campaigns and committees over at least three years, police say.

An analysis by the Herald/Times found that Allied, however, was not alone in writing large checks to political candidates. Another chain of gambling centers, run by Arcola Systems of Florida, layered at least $864,000 in checks on legislators in the last two years. Arcola and none of its representatives are included or named in the investigation of Allied.

With federal and state investigators now preparing indictments on racketeering and corruption charges, the same politicians who have quietly accepted industry checks are prepared to pass a bill to ban Internet cafes.

The House Gaming Committee will take up a bill to ban the gaming centers on Friday, a similar bill will be taken up in the Senate on Monday. Legislative leaders said they hope to get a bill on the governor’s desk by the end of the month.

“We are finally seeing what an epidemic this is that as elected officials we’ve closed our eyes to,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, sponsor of the House bill. “Seeing the amount of money these institutions made and stole from some of the most vulnerable in our state is really sad.” More here. 

Here is a breakdown of some of the top takers in Tallahassee's Internet gambling gold rush 2011-12:

Chase Burns, the software provider whom police say made more than $63 million in donations through his companies: International Internet Technologies, Burns Family Cattle, Burns Family Land Company, Chase Burns Trust, Prestige Gaming:

* Florida Democratic Party -- $79,500 

* Florida Republican Party -- $52,000

* Florida Leadership Fund, Sen. Jack Latvala -- $40,000

* Florida Conservative Action Committee, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City -- $25,000

* Florida Freedom Council, Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando  -- $25,000

* Citizens for Integrity in Government, Dem Reps. Janet Cruz, Karen Castor Dentel, Alan Williams and Sen. Joe Abruzzo -- $10,000

* Initiative for Florida's Future, Sen. Chris Smith -- $10,000 

* Veterans for Conservative Principles, Rep. Frank Artiles -- $10,000

Save Our Internet Access was formed in 2011 by Arcola lobbyist Dave Ramba and in the following two years raised $867,000 and spent $864,000: 

* Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth, Rep. Frank Artiles, former Sen. Mike Bennett, Sen. Charlie Dean, former Rep. Peter Nehr, Rep. Greg Steube -- $116,400 2012

* Commitee Supporting Utilities and Competitiveness, controlled by Dave Ramba -- $67,000

* Floridians for Preserving Sight, controlled by Dave Ramba -- $60,000

* House Majority, House Speaker Will Weatherford -- $50,000

* Senate Majority, Senate President Don Gaetz -- $30,000 

* Florida Leadership Fund, Sen. Jack Latvala –$30,000 

* Committee for a Conservative House, Speaker Will Weatherford, $25,000

* Citizens for Principled Leadership, Democratic candidate Nancy Soderberg, $20,000

* Republican Party of Florida -- $20,000 

* Florida Democratic Party -- $17,500

* Floridians for Liberty, Sen. Jeff Brandes -- $17,000

* Initiative for Florida’s Future, Sen. Chris Smith -- $10, 000

* Citizens for a Prosperous Florida, Sen. Jeff Clemens -- $10,000 

* Florida Forward, Rep. Richard Corcoran, $5,000

Source: Florida Division of Elections