A lawyer wrongfully imprisoned in 2014 for being the “mastermind” of a $300 million Florida “gambling ring” is suing the state’s former AG Pam Bondi and former Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, among others, for $50 million, alleging malicious and wrongful prosecution.
Kelly Mathis was among 57 people arrested in 2013 police raids on internet cafés offering sweepstakes games that simulated slot machines.
Despite the fact he was simply an attorney offering legal advice to a chain of internet cafes called Allied Veterans of the World, he was the only one of those 57 detainees to serve a prison sentence. Everyone else took a plea bargain and escaped jailtime.
Because Mathis held no ownership stake in Allied Veterans and did not stand to profit based on its success, he elected to stand trial, fully expecting to be acquitted. But he was convicted on 103 racketeering and gambling-related charges — including “ownership of a slot machine” — and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Sheriff ‘Vendetta’ Alleged
Mathis — who, until his conviction, served on numerous volunteer boards and had been a bar association president — has said he believes Sheriff Eslinger held a vendetta against him because he had successfully defended several sweepstakes café owners against the Sheriff’s Office’s attempts to shut them down and seize their assets.
His conviction was quashed in 2016 after an appellate court ruled — among other things — that prosecutors had failed to present evidence that Mathis was acting as anything but a lawyer for the company. The state appealed the decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.
The tide has turned,” Mathis told WJXT on Wednesday. “It is now time to make those who tried to do this to me — that took away my livelihood, took away my practice, took away four years of my life — to hold them accountable.”
Business Was Legal, Mathis Claims
Sweepstakes games are not considered gambling businesses under Florida law if they are used to promote another legitimate core product, which is how fast food restaurants like McDonalds are able to offer games of chance.
Mathis “crime” was to offer his legal opinion that Allied Veterans — an organization that donated a portion of its profits to veterans’ causes — was legitimate, an opinion he upholds to this day. He argues that Allied Veterans’ core product was internet supply, not gambling, as alleged by the prosecution during his trial.
According to the Mathis’ lawsuit, when the company opened its first internet café in 2009, the attorney sent Eslinger a letter outlining the legal justification for its operations. The sheriff refused to meet with Mathis to discuss the situation, it claims.
Mathis also claims the defendants were “well aware that asset seizures … could bring in millions of dollars into the Seminole County Sheriff’s and Attorney General’s Office, as well as fuel Defendant Eslinger’s political career.”
The case was high-profile at the time because it led to the resignation of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll due to her connections with Allied Veterans. While Carroll was never charged with a crime, her PR firm had worked for the company and she had appeared in one of its TV spots, extolling its work for veterans’ charities.