TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In the weeks before an alleged gambling ring came crashing down with nearly 60 arrests, those linked to the ring showered Florida politicians with campaign contributions.
New campaign finance records reviewed by The Associated Press show that those linked to the scandal involving Allied Veterans of the World pumped more than $100,000 into the campaign accounts of at least 46 Florida lawmakers during the first three months of this year.
That's on top of the more than $1 million in contributions that flowed into campaign accounts during the previous three years.
Some of those who received the money said they were unaware that checks had come in from people and companies affiliated with Allied.
"Believe me, I didn't want the money," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who controls a political committee that accepted a $7,500 check from one of the companies linked to gambling ring.
Allied Veterans of the World ran nearly 50 Internet parlors in Florida with computerized slot machine-style games and gave about $6 million to veterans out of nearly $300 million in profits. Investigators said much of the money went to charity leaders, who spent much of it on boats, beachfront condos and vehicles such as Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches.
The operations were shut down last month. Jennifer Carroll, Florida's Republican lieutenant governor, abruptly resigned after being questioned by investigators. Carroll did consulting work for Allied Veterans while she was a state legislator. She was not charged with wrongdoing.
Amid the fallout, however, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature quickly passed a bill that sought to ban all storefront operations also known as "Internet cafes." Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law earlier this month. Adult arcades caught up in the legislation filed a lawsuit Thursday to overturn part of the new law.
Some politicians, including Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, returned checks days after the arrests. Campaign records show that Patronis gave back $20,000 in campaign donations he received from companies controlled by people who were arrested. He returned $5,000 from his campaign account and another $15,000 from a political committee that he helped start.
He said some of the companies who gave him money had names that did not suggest that they were linked to gambling.
"When I found out who it was from I gave it back," Patronis said.
Donations flowed to a handful of the legislators who voted against the ban. But Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said he was unaware that he received checks from the companies.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine and one of the sponsors of the ban on the storefront operations, got a $500 check from one of the companies. He said it's not surprising that donations came in since legislators were talking about regulating the operations before news of the arrests surfaced.
Thrasher pointed out that he made a contribution to a veterans charity to offset the contributions he received.
Other lawmakers - including Sen. Jack Latvala - have done the same. Latvala donated $40,000 in March from a political committee he controls to several charities.
Both the Republican Party of Florida and Florida Democratic Party have also donated more than $500,000 to groups that work with veterans.
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