Florida Senate bans Internet cafes in wake of scandal
Eager to recover from the scandal that forced Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to resign last month, the Florida Senate sent Gov. Rick Scott a bill Thursday to shut down the Internet cafes that police call storefront casinos.
Four Southeast Florida senators voted against the fast-tracked measure, warning that in their zeal to shut down the online gambling operations, legislators would wipe out harmless games at places like Chuck E. Cheeses, Dave and Busters or many family-oriented arcades where players can try their luck for coupons.
But supporters of the bill said they have no intention of attacking legitimate recreation, just the Internet-based games such as those connected to a massive racketeering, money-laundering and gambling case that last month netted 57 arrests.
Carroll has not been charged with any crime but resigned after being interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about work her public-relations company in Jacksonville did for Allied Veterans of the World, a charity that operated Internet cafes. Prosecutors alleged that the operation took in about $300 million but sent only a few million to charitable organizations.
“Recent events, obviously, brought us to where we are today,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “This bill is about stopping illegal gambling in the state of Florida.”
Thrasher originally sponsored a bill to just declare a moratorium on permitting of new Internet cafes. That was beefed up into a statewide ban, closing down existing operations, after the 57 arrests and Carroll's March 12 resignation.
At Internet cafes, players buy online access and can do many computer tasks. Critics say they exist mainly for online casino gaming, though, and sheriffs have been lobbying for their closing for several sessions. Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, who heads the Senate gaming committee, said the adult arcades -- which feature self-contained games of skill rather than Internet games of chance -- would not be affected by the ban.
He said police can tell the difference between a children's arcade, or retiree amusement center, and an online gambling operation.
“It took a very serious event to bring this about,” said Thrasher. “This absolutely does not close down any legitimate operators.”
Sens. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, voted against the proposal. Sachs, a former prosecutor, said she might have felt differently in her old job but that the legislative branch should not be pre-judging possible results of the three-year federal investigation that closed 49 Internet cafes across Florida -- nor any reason to assume that the game arcades might be acting illegally.
“I do not feel it incumbent on me, as a legislator, to investigate, prosecute or convict,” she said. “I'm here to legislate. I did not see anything in the federal investigation that would bring into their net a senior arcade or a children's arcade.”
Sachs said thousands of her constituents had called or written to her about keeping their amusements open. She said the senior amusement centers give out coupons, not money, and that there are more than 60 of them in her district alone.
“There has been a public outcry in Palm Beach County in the area I represent about shutting down the senior arcade,” said Abruzzo. “This is their everyday way of life, their main entertainment.”
Ring said he doesn't think the bill will hurt game arcades but many of his constituents think it will.
“As long as they're concerned about it, I can't support it,” he said, adding that the Internet cafe industry brought the closure on itself by not wanting to deal with repeated attempts at regulating the business. “The industry has fought regulation time and time again. The industry has not been pro-active in trying to work with the Legislature over the years -- quite the opposite.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hailed Senate passage or the bill, which was immediately certified to Scott for his signature.
“Today, the Florida Legislature moved one step closer to purging our state of Internet cafes, which have operated unchecked in our communities for too long,” Weatherford said. “I appreciate the support Senate President Gaetz and members on both sides of the aisle to help send this bill to the Governor. I look forward to the day when this bill becomes law.”
But Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, issued a statement saying “seniors and children are being punished despite following the rules and providing a safe place for entertainment.
“We are not gambling establishments,” she said. “We are nothing more than social clubs that provide fun and stimulating games to keep our patrons active and happy.”
Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at [email protected]