Faced with a police crackdown, owners of Internet sweepstakes cafes in Pinellas County have claimed their businesses aren't built on illegal gambling, they just offer customers cash bonuses, obtained by playing computer games, that help boost sales of other products.
But is that assertion credible when the cafes prompt compulsive spending, use games designed by a gambling-industry vendor and employ the jargon of the casino floor?
Those are questions raised by documents filed by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in its effort to arrest Palm Harbor Internet Cafe owner Megan Crisante, 23. An arrest warrant was issued Thursday for the Sanford resident on 45 misdemeanor counts of possessing coin-operated devices and one felony count of operating a gambling house.
The arrest warrant affidavit and a report by a gambling expert shed new light on Crisante's business model.
"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "And in this case, it is. It's gambling."
Robert Sertell, a gambling expert enlisted by the sheriff, is a past consultant for the National Indian Gaming Commission, according to his report, and was assistant director of Atlantic Community College's Casino Career Institute in New Jersey.
Palm Harbor Internet Cafe, like similar Florida sweepstakes cafes, sold customers "phone cards" with points that could be used to play on-site computer games for cash winnings. Cafe advocates say the prizes are used to promote the phone cards, not gambling, and are permissible under Florida law.
But Sertell's report, using cafe sales records, casts doubt on that argument.
He pointed to a case in which a customer obtained $6,950 worth of theoretical phone time, enough for 231,663 minutes, or more than 160 days of talking around the clock.
"The operators always claim, 'No, you're wrong, we're selling a legitimate product.' And they are. But it's a product that nobody wants," Sertell said. "It's a product nobody uses. It's camouflage."
Sertell's report states that computers seized in a raid on Palm Harbor Internet Cafe by sheriff's deputies were running software created by Gametronics, a Canadian company.
The company has a track record of doing business with gambling operations. At least two Las Vegas-based gaming companies, Casino Data Systems and Cyberview Technology, state in marketing materials that they have used Gametronics games. Gametronics is also featured on the website casinovendors.com, "Your Guide to 15,100 Gaming Industry Suppliers."
The sheriff's arrest warrant affidavit asserts that the gimmicks in one game at Palm Harbor Internet Cafe, "Lucky Larry Leprechaun," are virtually identical to those of conventional slot machines. The game even contains classic casino terms such as "paylines," and "playlines," according to the affidavit.
Kelly Mathis, Crisante's lawyer, disputed Sertell's report and the arrest affidavit. He has argued that sheriff's deputies obtained a search warrant without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Investigators shut down the cafe in July, seizing 84 computers.
"These documents look like an after-the-fact attempt to justify the actions of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office," Mathis wrote in an email. He said Sertell "makes a living going around the country testifying that everything is gambling."
As of Friday afternoon, Crisante had not been taken into custody. Mathis said he is making arrangements for his client to "turn herself in voluntarily."
At least one outside authority on gambling agrees with Sertell. Brian Kongsvik, help-line director for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, said his group has received 145 calls since last July from patrons of sweepstakes cafes who want help with what they view as a gambling addiction.
"I can tell you, without doubt, in our experience . . . it is gambling," Kongsvik said.
Even some of the cafes' biggest fans have trouble defending them as non-gambling establishments. Ruth Hazel, an 83-year-old Largo resident who frequented Pinellas cafes before the sheriff's crackdown, is incensed at police for removing what she views as great places for older people to hang out and socialize.
But is it gambling?
"I consider it enjoyment," Hazel said. She paused, then added, "I suppose, if you want to say gambling: Yes."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.