There are an estimated 1,000 Internet sweepstakes cafes in Florida, yet not a single one is regulated by state gambling officials. But now that a sweeping racketeering investigation has led the lieutenant governor to resign, state leadership appears to have finally coalesced around banning this burgeoning, predatory industry. It can't come too soon. Local governments, including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, have shown far more courage in protecting Floridians. Florida does not need more gambling.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll's abrupt resignation Wednesday came a day after she was interviewed concerning her affiliation, while serving as a Jacksonville-area legislator, with an Internet cafe operator called Allied Veterans of the World & Affiliates. On Wednesday, federal and state officials announced 57 arrest warrants in 23 Florida counties and five other states in connection with 49 Allied Veterans' cafes. Two of those arrested were Jacksonville police officers. Carroll has not been implicated and her running mate, Gov. Rick Scott, said he knew of no allegations of illegal activity. She owned a public relations firm used by Allied Veterans in 2009 and 2010.
It is an ignominious end for an multistate operation that persuaded Florida lawmakers for years to turn a blind eye, through state lobbying and political donations, and by filing lawsuits — all the while claiming they were raising money to help veterans. And now a federal affidavit shows why: Four co-conspirators alone are believed to have pocketed a whopping $90 million in proceeds over four years just for themselves while charities received less than 2 percent of the estimated $300 million in revenue.
On the local level, however, where the societal impact of this fiscal drain is most evident, the cafe operators have not been nearly so successful. This week, the Pinellas County Commission became the latest government to consider a formal ban on operators, building on years of law enforcement action by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and predecessor Jim Coats. Hillsborough County banned them in 2011. The Pinellas commission voted to query whether municipalities would support a ban. They should. Clearwater City Council just passed its own six-month moratorium on additional cafes last week.
Also signing up in opposition: The Tampa City Council voted last month to extend permanently its moratorium on new Internet cafes. Moratoriums are not ideal solutions — in Tampa, 13 existing Internet cafes can continue to operate within city limits but they cannot add additional gambling machines at those locations or the sale of alcohol — but they are more than Tallahassee has done.
That should soon change. On Wednesday, Republican leaders who have unsuccessfully backed bans in the past were quick to seize the moment, including House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz. Scott last year also said he would support a ban, but in the end did nothing to make it happen. Now he has every reason to, and to demand that the Republican-controlled Legislature do the same. There is no excuse.