Reacting to an Internet gambling scandal that forced Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to resign this week, the Florida House gambling committee today (Friday 3/15) approved a bill that outlaws gambling machines commonly used in strip mall Internet cafes and adult arcades.
If the bill passes, most of the machines will be presumed illegal -- without the legal arguments that have protected some operators from arrest and punishment.
Backers say the idea behind the bill is to put Internet cafes out of business. It's expected to be ready to present for Gov. Rick Scott's signature by the end of March.
The House Select Committee on Gaming vote was 15 to 1, with only Coconut Creek Democrat Jim Waldman voting against it. He objected to the haste of the bill and its failure to address gambling as a whole in Florida.
"It seems like this is something that we consistently seem to do around the Florida House and that is a knee-jerk reaction to something that took place," Waldman said.
The 28-page bill filed by State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, appeared last night, just two days after state investigators announced 55 arrests in connection with a purported charity called Allied Veterans of the World. The company allegedly is a front for Internet café-style gambling.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said Allied was a $300 million gambling industry that turned only a slight fraction of its profits over to veteran charities.
The disclosure that Carroll's public relations firm had represented Allied caused her to resign early this week. She has not been accused of wrongdoing.
The possible effect of Trujillo's bill remains unclear. The redefinition of the gambling machines is supposed to clarify the law and make prosecution easier. But Orlando prosecutor Joseph Cocchiarella, director of Central Florida's inter-county Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, testified the MBI has prosecuted gambling operators successfully under existing law and he urged the panel not to change it.
"Then why are Internet cafes proliferating all over our state?" asked Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
"They are proliferating where they haven’t been prosecuted," Cocchiarella said. "Where they've been prosecuted, they're gone."
Cocchiarella warned legislators that passage of a prohibition law will not by itself close any Internet cafes or adult arcades. He said many of the gambling operators make tens to hundreds of millions of dollars from their gambling operations and they are unlikely to close their doors without a fight.