TALLAHASSEE — Shamed by the notion that they may have filled their political coffers with more than $1.4 million in campaign cash from a phony veterans group facing charges of illegal gambling, members of the Florida Legislature are scrambling to save face by donating the money to charity.
Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican slated to be House speaker in 2016, sent a letter to his Republican colleagues Monday saying that he's giving away the $3,500 in questionable cash he received to a local veterans group. He suggested other legislators do the same and even attached a list of the suspected companies.
"The information that has come to light regarding the Allied Veterans group and their affiliates is outrageous," he wrote. "These allegations of fraud especially in the name of those who risk it all in defense of freedom and our nation — must be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law."
Allied Veterans of the World and its 57 owners and operators have been charged with operating a $300 million racketeering, gambling and money laundering scheme under the guise of charity. A Times/Herald analysis found they used 60 different organizations and 34 individuals to steer more than $1.4 million to state and federal campaign accounts between 2008 and 2012.
Investigators reported this week that one alleged conspirator, Nelson Cuba, former head of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, had $56,400 stuffed in a safe deposit box along with 5 million Iraqi dinars — worth $4,300. Police also seized $583,507 in cash, 59 vehicles and vessels, and froze $100.6 million in bank accounts, the Seminole County Sheriff's Office announced.
The list of politicians who were beneficiaries of the Allied Veterans' political largess spans the political spectrum and reaches every corner of the state.
According to the Times/Herald analysis, the largest beneficiaries included the Republican Party with $288,500; the Florida Democratic Party with $159,500; Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and his political committees with $40,000; and House Speaker Will Weatherford and his political committee with $15,000.
Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who received $4,500 from Allied Veterans affiliates, said he has directed staff to compile a list of all groups that owned Internet cafes, and identify any questionable donations to the Senate Democrats' political committee — even though the accounts are empty of cash and have been closed.
Weatherford's office was not aware his campaign had taken $15,000 from one of the Allied Veterans' affiliates until the Times/Herald alerted him. But he noted that contributions to his political committee, Citizens for a Conservative Democracy, had already been given to the Republican Party. RPOF chairman Lenny Curry last week announced the party would donate $300,000 to the Florida Veterans Foundation, a state-run charity intended to benefit veterans.
"I have always supported and voted for a ban on Internet cafes, and I expect the House to once again vote to ban them this year," Weatherford said in a statement.
Latvala said he is donating all $40,000 he raised to a Tampa Bay area veterans charity. "If people want to give me money, that's their decision," he said. "I was told they were legitimate businesses."
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she has instructed her treasurer to return the $5,500 she received from Allied Veterans. She does not want to donate it to charity because she is concerned that the charity could be forced to pay it back if creditors attempt to get back money owed by Allied Veterans. "I don't want to harm some charities just because we want to look like we're doing something good," she said.
Allied Veterans was part of a political coalition of Internet cafe owners who last year pushed for legislation that would have legalized their enterprise by clarifying state law that the software-based technology was a legitimate sweepstakes game. Efforts to clarify the law and regulate them passed a Senate committee, but was stymied when the House insisted on banning them.
Now prosecutors say the machines are clearly illegal because they operate as online slot machines. The Legislature is rushing to ban them completely, rather than pursue more regulations or taxes.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, among the chief advocates for regulating and not banning the machines, said he received $5,500 from Allied Veterans and has spent the funds. "The money was raised in 2011 and spent in 2012," he said. "It's gone."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article reported that state Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, had received $14,000 in contributions. A political committee, Putting People First, which Rader was affiliated with along with other Democratic candidates, received the Allied Veterans contribution.
Times/Herald staff writers Toluse Olorunnipa, Tia Mitchell and Connie Humburg contributed to this report.