Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigns

TALLAHASSEE — Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll abruptly resigned Tuesday after law enforcement officials questioned her about ties to a purported veterans charity at the center of a $300 million illegal gambling investigation.

Florida law enforcement officials would not say whether Carroll, 53, is facing possible criminal charges in connection with the case. Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday afternoon that he did not know whether Carroll would be charged with a crime.

Carroll, in a 400-word statement, said she does not believe she is being targeted by investigators.

"She resigned, and she did the right thing for her state and for her family," Scott said. He said he will not name Carroll's replacement until the end of the legislative session in May.

At issue: Carroll's connections to Allied Veterans of the World, a Florida nonprofit that operates a chain of Internet sweepstakes cafes as a pseudo-charity for veterans. The cafes sell Internet time for entries into sweepstakes on devices that resemble slot machines.

This week, close to 60 people associated with the company were arrested on various charges, including illegal gambling, racketeering and money laundering.

Carroll owned a public relations firm that represented Allied Veterans and while a member of the Florida House of Representatives, did work for the company. She later filmed an advertisement promoting Allied Veterans while serving as lieutenant governor.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators interviewed Carroll about Allied Veterans on Tuesday. She resigned later that day after meeting with the governor's chief of staff and general counsel. She did not meet with Scott.

"I have and will continue to fully cooperate with any investigation," Carroll said in a statement, which was sent from a private email account to members of the media. "Although I do not believe I or my company are targets of the investigation, I could not allow my company's former affiliation with Allied Veterans to distract from the administration's important work for the families of Florida."

Though she was not well known throughout the state, Carroll had been seen as an important figure in the state Republican Party and a bridge to women and minority voters.

Born in Trinidad and a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, Carroll was the first African-American Republican woman elected to the Legislature and the first African-American woman elected lieutenant governor. She was on the short list to be named Charlie Crist's lieutenant governor in 2006 before Scott selected her four years later.

Carroll was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2012 and led a task force studying Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws.

"Lt. Gov. Carroll resigned in an effort to keep her former affiliation with the company from distracting from our efforts to help make sure we do right for Florida families," Scott said. "I appreciate the effort she made on behalf of the great state of Florida. She was tireless. She put a lot of effort into military and to getting jobs going, and I'm very grateful for her service."

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, said his "heart goes out" to Carroll. "She's a friend, and we care about her," he said. "I'm shocked."

Added Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando: "I think she did probably what was the right thing to keep the governor's agenda moving forward. And so it won't be a distraction. But it still hurts. It hurts for her, it hurts for her family."

Carroll attended Scott's March 5 State of the State address but did not speak. Her last major public remarks came March 3, at a dinner honoring Scott and hosted by the Florida Federation of Republican Women.

Her official calendar for Wednesday — which was released Tuesday evening — listed no public events.

The investigation into Allied Veterans started in 2009, law enforcement officials said Wednesday. Investigators said Allied Veterans tried to scheme and defraud the public and governmental agencies by misrepresenting how much of its proceeds were donated to charities affiliated with veterans affairs.

Carroll's public relations firm, 3 N. and J.C. Corporation, is currently inactive, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. But the company's primary source of income in 2009 and 2010 was Allied Veterans, financial disclosure forms show.

While serving in the state House in 2010, Carroll introduced legislation to legalize sweepstakes games such as those in cafes operated by Allied Veterans. Carroll later withdrew the proposed law, saying that it was filed erroneously and that she wasn't interested in legalizing Internet cafes, which operate in a legal gray area.

Internet sweepstakes cafes are big business in Florida. Since 2007, as many as 1,000 have popped up across the state, according to industry estimates, raking in $1 billion a year.

Customers buy Internet time loaded onto a card and get free sweepstakes entries they can reveal by playing games on computer screens that mimic slot machines.

Allied is a big player in Florida and has about 50 locations statewide. Allied has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on state lobbyists.

Carroll's time as lieutenant governor has not been without controversy.

Former travel aide Carletha Cole said she was fired in 2011 after complaining about Carroll in the media. Cole, who was later charged with sharing an illegal recording, said she once walked in on Carroll and a female staffer engaged in what appeared to be a sex act. The governor's office has described Cole's allegations as "outrageous."

Carroll's travel as lieutenant governor also has been an issue. Scott's office placed Carroll on a $10,000-a-month fixed travel budget after her travel costs ballooned to nearly $300,000 in 2011. Scott pays for his own travel.

With Scott's consent, Carroll also was assigned Florida Highway Patrol protection from a lower-ranking, less-expensive corporal.

Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry, who like Carroll is from Jacksonville, called Carroll a "great leader for our party and our state."

In her statement, Carroll said she was proud of her work to help veterans and the military industry.

"Although I have made a decision to leave public office, I will not withdraw from public life," she wrote. "I look forward to continuing to make Florida a better place for all, especially our men and women in uniform."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas and Toluse Olorunnipa and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

   
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