Kelly Mathis Florida sweepstakes cafes

Former Florida sweepstakes cafe attorney Kelly Mathis, right, received a six-year jail sentence last week for his role with Allied Veterans (Image: John Raoux/AP)

You’d think that a lawyer would know better, but the big money generated by gambling can be tempting for just about anyone. Now, a Florida attorney could be spending time in prison after using a charity organization as a front for an illegal gambling ring.

Kelly Mathis of Jacksonville, Florida was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of running a $300 million gambling ring. Mathis was convicted of a total of 103 counts ranging from racketeering to possessing slot machines. He’s just one of 57 defendants in the case, which also led to the resignation of Florida lieutenant governor Jennifer Carroll.

Bait and Switch Game

The case involved one of the hotter gambling issues in the United States today: so-called sweepstakes cafes. We’ve written about the controversies over these businesses in several states, including Florida. While the details about how these venues work can vary, the basic structure is always the same: customers buy a product such as phone cards or Internet time, and then receive “sweepstakes entries” as a bonus for their purchase. These entries allow customers to play simulated slot machine games on computers. This is the real draw, as few (if any) customers are actually interested in purchasing the products being offered in these locations.

As in other states, operators in Florida claimed that these sweepstakes games were legal under current gambling laws. But law enforcement officials disagreed, shutting down many venues, and leading the Florida Legislature to change the law to specifically outlaw the sweepstakes cafes.

In this case, the cafes were being run under the name of Allied Veterans of America and Allied Veterans of the World. However, prosecutors say that very little of the $300 million in revenues from the businesses actually went to veterans, and that the group was mostly used as a front for the gambling operations.

On (Bad) Advice of Counsel

During sentencing, Mathis’ attorneys argued that he should not have to face jail time. According to Mathis, he did not involve himself in the operations of these businesses, and only provided legal advice to Allied Veterans. Prosecutor Nick Cox disagreed, saying that engaging in deception and merging the charity with the gambling operation called for jail time.

While Mathis was sentenced to six years in prison, he felt confident that he would be overturned on appeal. He also said that decisions such as this one could hurt the legal community.

“A lawyer will be afraid to give any advice at all if this is allowed to stand,” the attorney said.

While Cox argued that prison time was appropriate, he too understood that it wasn’t without ramifications.

“We just sentenced a lawyer to prison, that doesn’t make me proud,” Cox said. “I’m not happy we needed to do this.”

Mathis will remain free on bond while he awaits his appeal.

The saga of the sweepstakes cafes received great attention in Florida in large part due to the involvement of Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll, who had worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans. While the controversy caused her to resign her post last year, she was not charged with any crimes.