ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Almost a year after Florida lawmakers outlawed Internet cafes following the arrests of dozens of suspects on gambling charges, authorities on Thursday made a second-round of arrests and executed search warrants in an effort to break up two Internet cafe operations that they say were promoting gambling.
A police task force headed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement served search warrants in six Florida counties, targeting operations run by Ivan Vega of Lake Mary and Peter Miller of Neptune Beach. Vega was arrested on a warrant from an earlier investigation on charges of keeping a gambling house, running a lottery and other charges.
Vega was being held without bond at the Seminole County Jail and couldn't be reached for comment. Miller didn't return a phone call or email.
Authorities wouldn't say how much money the operations were earning.
"I hope it's becoming clear to people that this is illegal," said Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox at a news conference. "It's amazing for me that after all that has happened, we find ourselves here again."
"All that has happened" includes the arrest of 57 people connected to the Allied Veterans of the World charity last year, the subsequent resignation of then-Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll who had worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans, the passage of legislation outlawing Internet cafes and the successful prosecution of Allied Veterans attorney Kelly Mathis.
Many of the 57 Allied Veterans suspects have reached plea deals with prosecutors that will spare them jail time, and others have cases still pending. Carroll, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, resigned after investigators questioned her about consulting work she did for Allied Veterans.
Before Florida lawmakers banned Internet cafes last year, the businesses in Florida and elsewhere that rely on electronic sweepstakes often operated in a gray area. The game-makers argued they are legal sweepstakes because there's a predetermined number of winners, similar to a McDonald's Monopoly game or Coca-Cola's cap contest.
Mathis, accused of masterminding the charity gambling scheme, wrote opinion pieces and argued before local governments that the games were legal. He said many customers have no Internet at home and pay bills, prepare resumes and check email at the Internet cafes. Mathis was sentenced to six years in prison earlier this year but he is free on bond pending appeals.
Search warrants were executed Thursday on more than two dozen businesses in Brevard, Columbia, Duval, Lake, Marion and Seminole counties, authorities said. Five Internet cafe managers also were arrested by the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, and other arrests are expected, said Jim Madden, assistant commissioner of the FDLE.
The businesses had names like "Lucky Joes Sweepstakes" and "Lucky Shamrock Arcade." Some of the businesses operated similarly to the Allied Veterans Internet cafes, in that customers would come in to supposedly buy Internet time but they ended up playing slot machine games. At other businesses, customers would come in and pay a large sum of money for a piece of clothing like jeans or a hat and then apply the difference between what they paid and what the clothing was worth toward gambling, authorities said.