The case against a lawyer accused of helping to build a multimillion-dollar network of storefront casinos throughout Florida under the guise of a veterans' charity is based on "blurry evidence," a defense attorney said Wednesday.
Attorney Kelly Mathis is the first of more than 50 other defendants to go on trial in the Allied Veterans of World case that led to the resignation of Florida's lieutenant governor and a ban on all Internet cafes in the state. It also drove legislators to return campaign donations made by the group.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Mitch Stone told jurors that prosecutors had misinterpreted what was a gaming promotion and labeled it as gambling. The Internet cafes offered high-tech sweepstakes promotions and the law hadn't yet caught up with technology by the time of Mathis' arrest in March, he said.
"This case is based on the state's view of blurry evidence," Stone said. "They haven't proven it's gambling, number one, and they haven't proven that Mr. Mathis was a part of the organization, number two."
Mathis is charged with more than 100 criminal counts, including racketeering, running a lottery, conspiracy and possessing slot machines. He faces dozens of years in prison.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Thursday.
Prosecutors said Allied Veterans ran nearly 50 Internet parlors that were actually a front for a $300 million gambling operation that gave very little to veterans charities. Prosecutor Lisa Acharekar said Mathis determined where the Internet cafes should be located and made other key decisions for the group, Acharekar said.
"This case is about the law. It's nothing more than that," Acharekar said. "The defendant, with the activities he participated in, broke the law."
Mathis has said he was merely acting as an attorney for the charity, giving legal advice, and that the Internet cafes were legal, operating in a gray area under the law until the Legislature banned them this year. The game makers have argued they were legal sweepstakes because there was a predetermined number of winners, similar to a McDonald's Monopoly game or Coca-Cola's cap contest.
"They haven't proven it's gambling, No. 1, and they haven't proven Mr. Mathis was a part of the organization, No. 2," Stone said of prosecutors' case.
When the arrests were announced in March, former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said she would step down because her public relations firm once represented Allied Veterans. Carroll, a Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War, appeared in a TV ad in 2011 promoting the organization's charitable work on behalf of veterans and their families. She was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Authorities said then they were continuing to investigate campaign donations and lobbying money from the group. Soon after that announcement, lawmakers and political action committees in Florida and North Carolina, where some of the storefronts popped up, started reviewing campaign finance records. In many cases, they gave the amount of money they received from Allied Veterans and businesses and people tied to the group to charities they were more familiar with.
Prosecutors said Mathis and his associates built the operation by claiming the stores were businesses where customers could buy Internet time, when in reality most customers played slot machine games with names such as "Captain Cash," ''Lucky Shamrocks" and "Money Bunny." Prosecutors have said Mathis and his firm made $6 million from the operation over five years.
"The defendant was doing pretty good by Allied Veterans of the World," Acharekar said.
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 an Oklahoma company that made software for computers at the dozens of Allied Veterans centers around Florida. The deals should help them avoid prison time.
Channel 4's Kumasi Aaron is in Sanford on Wednesday and will have live updates from the courtroom on air and on News4Jax.com.