Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

FDLE Raids Gaming Centers; Crackdown Targets Suspected Illegal Gambling Establishments

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

FDLE Raids Gaming Centers; Crackdown Targets Suspected Illegal Gambling Establishments

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Hong & Dan Scanlan

Agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took boxes of records and computers on Thursday from seven gaming centers in Jacksonville and searched 20 others throughout the state.

The crackdown focused on suspected illegal gambling establishments separately owned by Peter Miller, of Neptune Beach, and Ivan Vega, of Lake Mary.

Vega, who owned 12 establishments in Lake, Brevard and Seminole counties, was arrested on illegal gambling charges. Miller, who owned the seven cafes in Jacksonville and eight others in Lake, Brevard, Marion and Columbia counties, said Thursday that he wasn't told whether he would be charged with a crime.

Despite last year's high-profile take down of Allied Veterans of the World, a multimillion-dollar gambling ring that involved a well-known Jacksonville attorney and two police union officials, and the passing of a state law banning "electronic gambling machines," there's been a resurgence of Internet cafes. The cafes offer Internet access to patrons, who can also play slot-machine style games for cash prizes.

Jacksonville appears to be ground zero for the rise in these businesses.

"Most of these are in Jacksonville," said Nick Cox, a statewide prosecutor with the Attorney General's Office who convicted Kelly Mathis, the attorney and mastermind of Allied Veterans. "There is most definitely a proliferation in Duval County."

Last month, the Times-Union reported that Internet cafes were prospering in Jacksonville. As of January, 59 cafes were paying a local tax to operate electronic sweepstakes games - up from 46 the previous year - with no city regulation or opposition from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

"I can tell you at this time it does not appear that any of them are operating illegally," said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lauri-Ellen Smith in a Feb. 14 e-mail.

However, Cox said anyone who believes those businesses are legal is "flat out wrong."

"They're wrong. Period," Cox said. "This whole thing has me scratching my head. After a year of prosecuting Allied Veterans, after the Legislature made their moves, here we are a year later dealing with the same thing. It just boggles my mind."

Sheriff John Rutherford on Thursday denied ever saying that the businesses were operating legally.

"If I find one operating illegally, we will make an arrest. There is a difference," Rutherford said.

While other local police agencies cooperated in the crackdown, Cox said the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office declined to participate. However, he said Jacksonville sheriff's officers provided backup for agents serving the warrants Thursday.

Cox said he didn't know why the Sheriff's Office didn't participate. Smith did not return a voice message left late Thursday afternoon seeking comment. …

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