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Prosecutor says Florida Legislature needs to decide on legality of Internet cafes

SPRING HILL — Well before authorities in Pinellas and Pasco counties shut down their local Internet sweepstakes cafes, Mark Simpson fought the same battle.

Over the past few years, Simpson, an assistant state attorney, has prosecuted two cases against the operations in the 5th Judicial Circuit — which includes Hernando County — and lost them both.

Even after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi concluded last week that the games being operated by a Bay County veterans group were illegal slot machines and violated the state's gambling laws, Simpson said he doesn't intend to launch a new effort to rid his circuit of the businesses.

Simpson, based in Ocala, said new efforts to prosecute would only be worthwhile if the Florida Legislature creates specific regulations that make the cafes illegal.

"We've got better things to do until the Legislature gets its act together," Simpson said. "Even a stupid man realizes after a while you stop hitting your head against the wall. The change needs to come from the top down and not from the bottom up."

Prosecuting the establishments — there are several in both Spring Hill and Brooksville — can also be extremely expensive to taxpayers, he added, because the business owners tend to sue the state any time attorneys file charges.

"These Internet cafes have nothing but money," he said. "They have almost an inexhaustible source of wealth to combat these things."

Tom Williams, a manager at Funtasia Sweepstakes on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, said Wednesday he doesn't understand why authorities would want to shut down the cafes.

"I think it's a crock," Williams said, adding that closing them would deprive his customers of something they enjoy.

At most of the businesses, patrons purchase Internet time, which usually is loaded onto a card that is then swiped at computers in the cafes to gain access to casino-style sweepstakes games. Players receive their winnings when they leave. Proponents have argued that, unlike real slot machines, sweepstakes games have a predetermined number of winners, which they contend makes the machines legal.

At Funtasia, Terry Rowe, a 70-year-old retired Marine from Spring Hill, passed his time Wednesday afternoon playing a game called Pharaoh's Treasure.

"It's just something to do," he said.

During his two to three visits to the operation each week, he typically spends about $40 total.

Rowe, who didn't care that Bondi called the cafes illegal, said he wished the state would legalize them so that they could be taxed and regulated.

"You're not going defeat it; you're not going to stop it," he said. "Live and let live."

At the nearby Aneri Internet Cafe, Clayton Brown played a game with his daughter, Sherry Miller. Brown goes to cafes in Hernando County, but lives in New Port Richey. Like so many others who frequent the operations, the 74-year-old said the games just give him something to do.

Miller, 56, plays with her parents when she visits from Michigan. She said she only spends $30 to $40 a week. She enjoys the atmosphere, the free snacks and the company of other players.

"You're not breaking the bank," she said. "I have a blast."

Information from Times files was used in this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com. Melvin Backman can be reached at mbackman@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Prosecutor says Florida Legislature needs to decide on legality of Internet cafes 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 8:04pm]
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