TALLAHASSEE -- Three operators of Internet cafes stood before the Florida Senate Gaming Committee last month and urged them to have mercy on their industry.
They told them of the job-creating potential of their business, their practice of offering free meals and free food to patrons, and how their gaming centers were favorite destinations for senior citizens.
What they didn't tell them about was their past brushes with the law -- from larceny, grand theft, check kiting and witness tampering
to arrests for operating illegal gambling houses in violation of Florida law.
Under Florida law, owners and operators of Internet cafes do not have to pass any criminal background checks to be in business. And only those companies that operate electronic sweepstakes games with prizes valued at more than $5,000 must register with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Adult arcade operators do not have to register at all.
"The law is very vague, put in place for McDonald's monopoly games," said Erin Gillespie, a department spokeswoman. "It was never meant to be a loophole for gambling. The law doesn't have a lot of teeth to it."
Mary Lucas, the manager of the Shooting Stars Sweepstakes in Mineola, warned the committee that they would "You're going to be putting 16,000 of us out of work."
"I have a family. My employees have families. We pay taxes and we are family to our customers," said Lucas, 47, who also lists her last name as Gordon, and has seven misdemeanor worthless check charges against her and was convicted of embezzling $1,800 in Virginia in 1999. She could not be reached for comment. Peter Bouzianis, 37, of Daytona, an attendant at Tel-Connect, an Internet café in Daytona, told the committee that his wife owns the company and described it as a "retail business that sells domestic and long-distance phone time."
His Florida Department of Law Enforcement criminal history record includes convictions for assault, misdemeanor battery, witness tampering and three separate domestic violence charges in the last seven years. He could not be reached for comment.
Tami Patel, 42, owner of Lucky Ducks II, an Internet cafe in Spring Hill, has been charged with 45 counts of operating illegal slot machines -- after the Pasco County sheriff raided one of her Internet cafes 10 days after it opened in 2011. Her case is pending in court.
Patel came to Florida after 33 years in Las Vegas to start the Internet cafe business and now believes she was trapped by a confusing state law.
Internet cafes have come under intense scrutiny following the news that federal and state authorities effectively shut down 49 Internet cafes operated by Allied Veterans of the World. Authorities say organizers were running a $300 million for-profit business, using illegal slot machines, laundering money and disguising themselves as a charitable organization. Nearly 60 people have been charged with racketeering and corruption. In reaction to the case, the Florida Legislature has moved swiftly to clarify state law to make it easier for law enforcement to shut down the illegal machines used by Internet cafes, South Florida's adult arcades and Miami's maquinitas.
The bill, HB 155, has passed the House 108-7 and a nearly-identical measure, SB 1030, is scheduled to come up for a first vote on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, the chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said he was unaware of the criminal record of some of the people who testified before his committee but said it serves as another reason to pass the legislation.
"These are not legitimate operations," he said. "We don't know who's running them or who owns them."
Bill Bunkley of the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee said that the absence of regulation makes it impossible for anyone to know whether people with criminal records are clean operators or "preying on vulnerable people."
"It's an embarrassment that this has been operating under the radar," he said. "Part of the branding of Florida is its retirement-safe community, but we've got an ever-increasing population that is vulnerable and you have to wonder how many of them are getting taken advantage of," he said.
For five years, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, sponsored a bill that would have shut down illegal Internet cafes, regulated adult arcades and streamlined the state's gambling laws under a gaming commission. But, he said, the effort was killed by the adult arcades industry and its leader, Gale Fontaine.
"She had a chance to fix this and she fought it," he said. "If it had passed, there would be no Internet cafes today and adult arcades would be regulated and taxed."
Now Fontaine, 63, owner of GF Amusements in Pompano Beach, which operates adult arcades and Internet cafes in South Florida, is one of the most outspoken critics of the bill before the Senate. She has testified frequently urging legislators to carve out an exception for the arcade games, which don't give out cash prizes but which give people gift cards in return for repeated play.
"We are not a gambling center; we are an entertainment center," said Fontaine, who was acquitted of charges related to running an illegal gambling house.
Patel, 42, the Lucky Ducks II owner, said she supports requiring background checks on owners and staff and regulations on her business.
"What the Allied Veterans have done is horrific," she said.
"They could stop the people that are racketeering -- just do like Vegas does and get a background check on every person including the owner. Half the places will probably shut down, but it won't kill the good ones."
Patel has organized a petition drive and plans to bring a large group of supporters to Tallahassee Thursdayto push for legislative leniency. She knows the odds are against them, but her customers may play one last card, she said. "They plan to vote the senators out if this happens."