Complaints spin out of Pinellas Internet cafe cases

PALM HARBOR — The Pinellas sheriff's narcotics division, already under attack for improper tactics in marijuana cases, is now facing criticism in another high-profile case: Internet cafes that authorities say were fronts for gambling.

Pinellas Sheriff's deputies have been accused in court papers of making "factual misrepresentations" to obtain a search warrant for the Palm Harbor Internet Cafe. In one instance, deputies are accused of writing a gambling expert's findings about the cafe — before the expert actually visited it.

Some of the deputies being criticized also have been involved in a series of controversial marijuana arrests, which have led to several internal investigations and reassignments. In some of the grow house cases, deputies were accused of using questionable tactics to obtain search warrants.

Although Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has acknowledged missteps in the marijuana cases, he staunchly defends the office's investigation into Internet cafes.

"These gambling cases are totally different," Gualtieri said.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has targeted Internet cafes since 2009, raiding and closing three cafes last summer and one earlier this year. The investigation into two cases, Palm Harbor Internet Cafe and Talk-N-Surf in Dunedin, has not yielded criminal charges. Charges have been filed against operators of the other two cafes, Reel Fun in Palm Harbor, and Southern Play Arcade near Largo.

The cafes sold Internet time or phone cards to customers who could play casino-style games on computers. The spinning images resembled slot machines, and players won cash.

The cafe owners and their attorneys say this is legal under Florida law, but Gualtieri said he has no doubt "these things are gambling machines."

Defense attorney Adam Regar argued in a motion filed on behalf of Palm Harbor cafe owner Megan Crisante that deputies made "factual misrepresentations" in the affidavit they presented to a judge to get a search warrant.

For example, Regar wrote, deputies made false claims by saying the cafe offered only one service for sale and did not promote it prominently. The deputies said customers going inside the cafe would be overwhelmed by ads to "play sweepstakes and win cash."

That's an important argument because Florida companies are allowed to offer sweepstakes to promote products, like the popular Monopoly game and prizes at McDonald's restaurants. The cafes say they are offering the sweepstakes to promote their phone cards or Internet time, and that it's not flat-out gambling.

Regar says the sheriff's own records disprove the claim that the cafe was only selling a single product.

The motion points to an investigative report written by Detective Jason Bahret, who wrote that he went to the cafe and noted signs in the window mentioning "pre-paid phones," "chargers," "unlimited talk," "full cellular accessories," and "Prepaid Long Distance Phone Cards." He also mentions signs inside promoting a telephone service called "Tel-Connect," which he says "appeared to be professionally made and clearly were placed in clear view for patrons to observe."

These observations appeared in an early draft of an affidavit, but not in the final version that was presented to the judge to get the warrant, the motion says. Regar says in court papers that the only explanation for leaving out this information is that it would have made it harder to get approval for a search warrant, an approach he calls "unlawful."

The changes were ordered by a narcotics sergeant, Jim Wentz, Regar said. The final version was signed by Bahret and his partner, Detective Paul Giovannoni.

The final affidavit also contained a summary of a gambling expert's findings about what went on in the Palm Harbor cafe. Regar discovered a sheriff's document that showed the summary was written before the expert visited the cafe.

Gualtieri, however, said there was nothing improper about the timing.

By the time the summary was created, he said, detectives had visited the cafe and it was understood that if the expert had concluded gambling was not occurring, the summary would either be dropped or rewritten to reflect actual findings.

Giovannoni was one of two lead detectives on indoor marijuana-growing cases stemming from camera surveillance of a Largo hydroponics supply store. He recently made news after donning a Progress Energy Florida uniform "as a ruse" to get close to an alleged grow house — a tactic the sheriff later called appalling.

The other lead grow house detective was Michael Sciarrino. Both Sciarrino and Giovannoni are now on administrative leave and prosecutors have dropped charges against some of the marijuana growers the two detectives arrested.

Sciarrino also has been criticized for his investigation of Reel Fun, a Palm Harbor internet cafe. Attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos said Sciarrino contacted his client directly, even after Theophilopoulos had stepped in to represent him. He said police should know they can't speak to suspects who have said they want to be represented by an attorney.

"In criminal law, that is the most basic of the basic tenets, you do not talk to a defendant who is represented, period," Theophilopoulos said.

Gualtieri said he didn't know about this allegation, and said he didn't have enough information to know if something improper occurred.

Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Staff Writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

Complaints spin out of Pinellas Internet cafe cases 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 11:43pm]

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