SANFORD — Attorney Kelly Mathis says he simply gave legal advice to a veterans' charity that ran a string of Internet cafes offering customers a chance to play sweepstakes.
Prosecutors say the Internet cafes were a barely disguised $290 million slot machine operation and Mathis was its mastermind. Jury selection for his trial starts Monday.
He faces over 200 counts of money laundering, lottery, possessing a slot machine and keeping a gambling house.
The prosecution says Mathis and the operators of Allied Veterans of the World were running a mostly bogus charity that got its money from dozens of casinos masquerading as Internet cafes throughout Florida. Prosecutors contend Mathis decided where to open the cafes and who would run them. They also say Allied Veterans spent only 2 percent of its proceeds on charitable works.
The arrest of Mathis and 56 other people in March prompted the Florida Legislature to ban the storefront Internet cafes and led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans. She has denied wrongdoing and wasn't charged.
Mathis, a past president of the Jacksonville Bar Association, contends a successful prosecution will have a chilling effect to lawyers around the state who give legal advice to business clients.
"You can't charge a lawyer in a conspiracy unless he has done more than practice the law," said Mitch Stone, Mathis' attorney.
Before Florida banned the cafes earlier this year, a customer would purchase a prepaid card to use a computer for a specific amount of time.
While at the computer, the customers would be offered the chance to play games with spinning wheels similar to slot machines. Winners would get money added onto their prepaid card, which they could either use for more computer time or take back to a cashier and cash out.
Mathis and Stone say the sweepstakes offered at Allied Veterans' Internet cafes weren't slot machines because the winners were predetermined, not randomly chosen by the computers.
But prosecutors say almost every customer was there to gamble and everyone knew it. They say the operators of Allied Veterans paid themselves millions, spending it on boats, beachfront condos and Ferraris. Authorities said Mathis made about $6 million, and they said he was the registered agent for 112 businesses related to their investigation.
Mathis will be the first of the co-defendants to go on trial.
Allied Veterans' leader and former chief each have entered no contest pleas.