Internet cafe ban takes effect as Gov. Scott signs bill
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday signed a bill to give law enforcement better tools to put an end to illegal gambling devices in strip malls and arcades throughout the state.
With no fanfare, the governor signed the bill in the privacy of his office when he returned to the Capitol after making a jobs announcement in Lakeland.
The measure is a response to a three-year federal and state investigation into illegal gambling at Internet cafes run by the Allied Veterans of the World and has already resulted in job losses for hundreds of workers in now-shuttered operations.
“I think the House and Senate did the right thing to crackdown on illegal gaming, especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy,’’ Scott told reporters after signing the bill into law.
Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned in the wake of the investigation and subsequent arrests because she had once worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans . She resigned, she said, to avoid becoming a distraction to the governor.
The law is effective immediately, giving law enforcement new definitions on which to crack down on illegal gambling machines. It also imposes new restrictions on arcade games and bans all electronic casino look-alikes.
For the past three weeks, Internet cafes and adult arcade owners throughout Florida have been closing down, dismantling equipment and laying off workers in anticipation of the move.
After the arrest of 57 owners and operators associated with Allied Veterans, Florida legislators — who for years ignored warnings from law enforcement that the gray areas of the law had allowed for the proliferation of the illegal games — passed the legislation with record speed.
Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who anchored the federal and state investigation called “Operation Reveal the Deal,” told the Times/Herald his efforts have been validated by the governor’s actions.
For years, Eslinger was among a handful of sheriffs that urged lawmakers to tighten the law to make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on the illegal games only to have their proposals languish and Internet cafes proliferate. In the meantime, the industry donated millions to legislative campaigns, estimated at more than $2 million in the 2012 election cycle alone.
“It wasn’t a loophole in the law,’’ Eslinger said Tuesday. “The law was complex, difficult and expensive to investigate — and this certainly will enhance law enforcement efforts.’’
But the manufacturers of the arcade machines say they are poised to challenge the law and are seeking ways to retrofit the machines.
Arcade manufacturers, which are allowed to operate their games only if there are a minimum of 50 games in play, have used social media and message boards to urge their operators and patrons to file complaints against retailers and restaurants that operate similar games but provide far fewer machines.
“Everybody is just waiting to see what they can do,’’ said John Sasso, sales manager for Electromatic International, a machine manufacturer based in Hollywood.
He has sent out a call to all arcade owners to scout out illegal games operating in retail stores and children’s entertainment centers, such as Denny’s, Golden Corral, Walmart, Chuck E Cheese’s and Dave & Busters, take a picture and report it to police when the bill is signed.
“It is sad to say that most locations are now closed due to HB 155,’’ Sasso wrote in a note to arcade owners. “But it is not over. There are still several legal maneuvers that need to happen before burying the key.”