TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll has resigned and authorities have announced that nearly 60 people have been charged in a scandal that involves Internet cafes. Authorities say the cafes are really are illegal casinos, and those involved have been using a purported veterans charity to siphon off millions of dollars the cafes generate. Authorities say the charity was a front for a $300 million gambling operation.
The public relations firm Carroll co-owned did work for the charity. She has not been charged with a crime and has denied doing anything wrong. She resigned a day after being questioned about the case.
Here's a glance detailing who Carroll is, what these Internet cafes do, the main players in the widening scandal and what is expected next:
Fifty-three-year-old Jennifer Carroll emigrated from Trinidad when she was 8 and joined the Navy as a jet mechanic. She moved up the ranks, retiring after 20 years as a lieutenant commander. The Republican was elected to the state House in 2003. She also was executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. She owned and operated at least two public relations firms in Jacksonville. One of her clients was the St. Augustine-based charity Allied Veterans of the World, which is at the center of this scandal. After Rick Scott won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, he selected Carroll as his running mate and she became the first black woman to be Florida's lieutenant governor. During her two years in office, a former staffer was charged with violating state law, accused of giving a recording of a conversation with Carroll's chief of staff to a newspaper reporter. That former staffer then said she had once walked in on Carroll and a female aide engaged in a sexual act. Carroll has denied this. She gained national notoriety when she said in response to the aide's claim that black lesbians don't look like her, implying they aren't attractive. A married mother of three, Carroll's son Nolan Carroll is a defensive back for the Miami Dolphins.
Allied Veterans of the World is the charity at the center of the scandal. It started out in 1979 as a small, legitimate charity that ran bingo games and held bake sales for veterans. But the Internal Revenue Service says the group evolved into a scam and is suspected of operating more than 40 illegal gambling locations around Florida. Authorities say one of those arrested, Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, is the scheme's mastermind. Mathis is accused of making about $6 million alone from the gambling operation. From 2007 to early 2012, investigators found evidence of over $6 million in what appear to be charitable donations by Allied Veterans. That amount, however, was only about 2 percent of the over $290 million made from gambling operations during that time. Instead of going to veterans, the vast majority of money went to for-profit companies and the individuals who operated Allied Veterans and its so-called affiliates. Authorities say they seized about 300 bank accounts containing $64.7 million and assets including cars such as Maseratis, Porsches and Ferraris.
When most people hear the term "Internet café" they think of computer geeks sitting on sofas and drinking coffee while surfing the Web. But in Florida and several other states, they say the gathering places are actually fronts for gambling. To play games, customers get prepaid cards and then go to a computer to play "sweepstakes." The games, with spinning wheels similar to slot machines, have names such as "Captain Cash," ''Lucky Shamrocks" and "Money Bunny," according to the IRS. Winners go back to a cashier with their cards and cash out. The legality of the games has been the subject of much debate in Florida. State lawmakers are now considering whether to ban them.
THE SOFTWARE COMPANY
In Anadarko, Okla., the owner of International Internet Technologies, which was accused of supplying the cafes with software, was arrested along with his wife. Chase Egan Burns, 37, and Kristin Burns, 38, face charges including racketeering and conspiracy in Florida. International Internet Technologies made $63 million from the Florida operation during 2007-2010, according to the IRS affidavit. Their lawyer says they did nothing illegal in selling the software.
Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida politicians are saying their campaigns and the Republican and Democratic parties should refund any donations they received from Allied Veterans, International Internet or its employees. So far, there is no indication that any was given by Allied Veterans, but International Internet gave nearly $500,000 into campaign accounts since 2009. Allied Veterans paid at least $490,000 to lobbyists and International Internet Technologies, more than $1.2 million between 2009-2012. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it is investigating political connections to the Allied Veterans. Scott says he will wait until at least May before appointing Carroll's successor.