March 14, 2013 9:40:41 AM
ORLANDO -- The next phase of an investigation into a veterans charity accused of being a front for a $300 million gambling operation will focus on the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying and campaigns donations, authorities said.
Nearly 60 people were charged in the probe so far and Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll stepped down after being questioned by investigators. While authorities wouldn't talk specifics Wednesday, records showed the Florida-based charity Allied Veterans of the World and another company involved in the alleged fraud have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying and political campaigns in Florida.
Allied Veterans ran nearly 50 Internet parlors with computerized slot machine-style games and gave little to veterans, instead lavishing millions on charity leaders, spending it on boats, beachfront condos and Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches, authorities said.
From 2007 to early 2012, investigators said they found evidence of nearly $6 million in what appeared to be charitable donations -- only about 2 percent of the nearly $300 million made from gambling during that period.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called the alleged scam "callous" and "despicable" and said it "insults every American who ever wore a military uniform."
Carroll was not charged with any wrongdoing. A public relations firm she once co-owned, 3 N& JC, did work for Allied Veterans. A Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War, Carroll also appeared in a TV ad in 2011 promoting the organization's work on behalf of veterans and their families.
Carroll said in a statement that neither she nor the public relations firm was targeted in the probe, and she stepped down so that her ties to the organization would not be a distraction for Republican Gov. Rick Scott's administration.
"I have and will continue to fully cooperate with any investigation," Carroll said.
The investigation involved 57 arrest warrants and 54 search warrants issued in Florida and five other states: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Nevada and Pennsylvania. At least 49 people were arrested; several defendants were to make their first appearance Thursday in Seminole County Court.
Bondi said that when charges are formally filed next week, they will include racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering and possession of slot machines.
Allied Veterans' 49 parlors in Florida were raided and shut down. Authorities said they seized about 300 bank accounts containing $64.7 million, as well as sports cars and other property.
A telephone number listed for Allied Veterans was disconnected. Emails to an address on the group's website were not returned. The address Allied listed as its headquarters appeared abandoned, the long, gray cinder-block building bare inside.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the arrests were only the first wave. The second part of the investigation will focus on political contributions Allied Veterans made and gambling centers not operated by the charity.
"Large sums of money have been spent on lobbying efforts and donations to political campaigns," Bailey said.
Records showed Allied Veterans paid at least $490,000 to Florida lobbyists between 2009 and 2012. International Internet Technologies, the software company that investigators said created the products used at the gambling centers, spent more than $1.2 million on Florida lobbyists during that same period. All of International Internet Technologies' Florida lobbyists resigned Wednesday.
Florida campaign records also showed International Internet Technologies has poured in nearly $500,000 into campaign accounts since 2009, including more than $230,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $60,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.
Donations have gone to political committees affiliated with legislators and the direct campaign accounts of dozens of legislators, including current Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.
Weatherford received a check for $500 in 2011, although he voted last year to ban the types of storefront operations.
Weatherford said Wednesday he has not talked with companies affiliated with the industry in months since he is opposed to them. He also said the Republican Party should consider returning any money it accepted from International Internet Technologies.
A Democratic Party spokeswoman said it was conducting an "up and down review of all contributions received."
Kelly Mathis, a Jacksonville lawyer who investigators say was at the center of Allied Veterans' operations, has given $5,145 since 2008, including nearly $2,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in late 2010 and the rest to state legislators. His law firm contributed another $5,260 to legislators and judges.
A woman who answered the phone at Mathis' law firm said no one was available to talk about his arrest.
Conflicting legislation last year called for regulating the Internet parlors or banning them outright. An impasse resulted in nothing getting passed, yet leaders were already talking about pushing ahead to quickly outlaw them.
"These machines and these Internet cafes need to be closed down," Weatherford said. "We believe they are acting illegally. The House is not waiting very long to move forward."
How deep Allied Veterans' political influence is has yet to be fully understood. But even Bondi, the attorney general, admitted to having her photo taken with one of the leaders, Jerry Bass.
"I met him. I actually believe I took a picture with him while this investigation was pending," Bondi said at a news conference announcing the arrests. "But what am I going to say, 'Sorry, I can't take a picture with you. You're under investigation?'"
Bass has been arrested and no one returned a telephone call to his home.