What had been a busy and fairly lucrative industry in Hernando County and other parts of the state came to an almost complete halt in March, when state lawmakers hastily passed a bill banning Internet gaming cafes, which were deemed to be gambling establishments.
Owners of more than 30 businesses in Hernando abruptly closed their doors rather than face possible criminal charges. The handful that did reopen did so under strict concessions that prohibited the arcades from giving away gift cards and limited cash prizes to 75 cents per game.
Terry Kasberg, owner of Spinners Sweepstakes Cafe in Spring Hill, claimed that the new rules decimated his business and drove away his mostly elderly customers, who he said enjoyed playing the games as a social activity.
Kasberg, whose game room is still open, said that the legislative action was nothing more than an attempt by a politically connected gambling industry to force out small entrepreneurs like himself.
"The law put a lot of people out of work," said Kasberg, who organized a pro-sweepstakes rally outside his store that drew dozens of patrons and cafe owners.
The new legislation came in the wake of a statewide investigation by local, state and federal agencies of 49 Florida cafes connected with a group called Allied Veterans of the World, a purported charity based in Jacksonville that authorities say collected millions of dollars for itself but gave little money to veterans.
The sweep resulted in the arrest of two Spring Hill cafe owners, Anthony William Alascia and John Nicholas Cucciniello, who faced charges of racketeering, keeping a gambling house, fraud and money laundering, among others. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said that their cafes on Commercial Way and Forest Oaks Boulevard raked in a combined total of more than $20 million.
Many sweepstakes cafe owners said the stigma created by the sweep was unfair to those whose businesses were run in a legitimate manner.
Kasberg and other sweepstakes owners said they will continue to pressure lawmakers to change the law.
Logan Neill, Times staff writer