SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — A Florida attorney was convicted Friday of using a veterans' organization as a front for a $300 million gambling operation in a case that led to the resignation of the state's lieutenant governor and caused the Legislature to ban so-called Internet cafes.
Six jurors deliberated for more than 14 hours over two days before finding Kelly Mathis of Jacksonville guilty of possessing slot machines, helping to operate a lottery and racketeering. He was found guilty on all but one of 104 counts against him.
Mathis was released on bond until his sentencing in February when he faces the possibility of dozens of years in prison. He described the verdict as "shocking" as he left courtroom. His attorney, Mitch Stone, said the fight wasn't over. Mathis' attorneys have said they were constrained in their defense presentation by a judge's ruling that limited the evidence they could introduce.
"I gave legal advice as an attorney, that's all I did," Mathis said as he left the courtroom. "Attorneys all over the nation need to be very afraid when six years after you give legal advice, somebody disagrees with that legal advice and they convict you of a crime."
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said he found no joy in winning a conviction against a fellow attorney. "You can't use the practice of law as a shield," Cox said. "It doesn't make me happy to convict a lawyer. What message does that send to the public?"
Mathis was the first of 57 defendants to go to trial in a case that led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll who had worked as a consultant for the Allied Veterans charity. She wasn't charged with any crime. The arrests also led the Florida Legislature to ban Internet cafes in the state earlier this year.
About half of the 57 defendants have reached some kind of agreement with prosecutors. The rest have yet to have their cases resolved. Despite the ban on Internet cafes, some have reopened in parts of north and central Florida. Cox said the verdict may have an impact on those operations since "it's kind of hard to ignore a verdict like this."
Prosecutors said Mathis and his associates built up the network of casinos by claiming they were businesses where customers could buy Internet time, when in reality most customers played slot machine games on computers and didn't use the Internet. Even though the Internet cafes were being operated under the aegis of Allied Veterans of the World, very little of the $300 million the Allied Veteran affiliates earned actually went to veterans, prosecutors alleged.
Prosecutors said Mathis and his law firm earned $1.5 million a year from the Allied Veterans work. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys called as witnesses some of Mathis' key co-defendants who had reached deals with prosecutors: former Allied Veterans of the World leaders Johnny Duncan and Jerry Bass, as well as Chase Burns, who operated a company that made software for computers at the dozens of Allied Veterans centers around Florida.
Defense attorneys also didn't call some of the state's top politicians — such as Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi — even though they were listed as potential witnesses. The judge in the case limited testimony from witnesses about efforts by local governments and the state Legislature to regulate the Internet cafes. Such testimony would have been valuable to the defense since it would be impossible to argue something was illegal if governments were setting regulations for it, Mathis' attorneys said.
"We were prevented from introducing evidence that was crucial to our defense and who we could call as witnesses," Mathis said after the verdict. "We were unable to put on testimony that my legal advice was accurate, it was correct."
During the three-week trial, prosecutors called a 78-year-old woman who testified that she gambled every night and spent more than $55,000. They also called a retired Army colonel who testified he had stopped by an Allied Veterans affiliate thinking it was a place for veterans to get help but instead found what looked like dozens of slot machines.
Defense attorneys called to the witness stand a former City of Jacksonville attorney who testified he had agreed with Mathis' interpretation of the law that the Internet cafes were legal. They also called other law enforcement officials and municipal attorneys who said they had never found anything wrong with Mathis' interpretation of the law.