Tallahassee Democrat, March 15.
Internet cafes have been controversial from the start. Sailing through a loophole in Florida law, they spread throughout the state while officials tried — or didn’t try — to stop them.
Developments in the past week surely have opened everyone’s eyes to two facts: That Internet cafes are in reality gambling establishments, and that they must be controlled.
Proponents of Internet cafes and the owners themselves have tried to pass off the storefront establishments as places where citizens without online access can go to check their email, with game promotions offered as mere incentives.
In a 2011, Kelly Mathis, an attorney for Allied Veterans of the World and Affiliates, wrote a column in the Tallahassee Democrat in support of Internet cafes. Mr. Mathis’ name will ring a bell if you’ve been following the news.
In his column, Mr. Mathis pointed out that Internet cafes have been legal since 1971 and said they offered patrons a place to “browse the Internet, pay their bills online, prepare resumes and submit job applications … and check their personal email.”
He said the cafes offered game promotions “as a marketing tool to promote the sale of retail products, such as telephone minutes and, most recently, Internet time.” He said, “Our electronic game promotions are no different from peel-backs at your favorite fast-food restaurants.”
But that’s not what they are.
Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge, who has led the Tallahassee effort to limit Internet cafes, visited one. He walked in, played blackjack and lost. He didn’t see people checking their email. He said he could just as easily have been sitting at a slot machine in a windowless casino in Biloxi.
One patron inadvertently provided the most honest appraisal of Internet cafes. After a robbery at an Internet cafe, she called 9-1-1 and reported that there had been a shootout at “the casino, in Apopka.”
Internet cafes also have been accused of being magnets for violent crime. They offer a refuge as close as the corner strip mall where gamblers can satisfy their addictions.
Now, they are the subject of an investigation that so far has resulted in 57 arrest warrants and 54 search warrants in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Authorities say Allied Veterans of the World — there’s that name — was part of a $300 million gambling operation that hardly benefited veterans at all. They say Mr. Mathis was the mastermind.
There is more to come. The next part of the investigation will examine political contributions made by Allied Veterans and other gambling sites.
Oh, and the investigation has prompted the resignation of Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, who had ties to Allied Veterans.
A place to check email, indeed.
Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, who has been a consistent opponent of Internet cafes, says that the Senate Gaming Commission will look at legislation to ban Internet cafes. Mr. Gaetz said: “I fully support such a ban as a precursor to additional legislation that may result from the comprehensive gaming review the Senate Gaming Committee has initiated.”
Florida will hardly be gambling-free. There are lottery games and Indian casinos, and you can bet on dogs, horses and jai alai players.
But the Internet cafe is a different animal, a mutant formed when current law failed to keep pace with a technological leap. It’s time that the state found a way to regulate these cafes — or, better yet, shut them down.