Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats told state Rep. Peter Nehr he considers Internet sweepstakes cafes to be illegal gambling. State Sen. Mike Fasano asked Nehr to co-sponsor legislation to regulate such operations. So what did Nehr do? The Palm Harbor Republican ignored them and opened an Internet sweepstakes cafe. So much for respecting fellow public servants and setting an example as a public official.
After his flag shop business folded and he was forced into personal bankruptcy in 2009, Nehr lived on his $30,000 legislative salary. Then he ignored the sheriff's advice and last month purchased Fun City Sweepstakes on U.S. 19 with the help of William Pfeiffer, a sweepstakes cafe lobbyist. Customers purchase a phone card, which gives them 100 sweepstakes points to play various sweepstakes games on desktop computers. The sweepstakes industry disingenuously insists this is not gambling. But by any rational understanding, inducing people to wager the value of their sweepstakes tickets in the hope of winning more money is gambling.
Fasano, in an effort to control the burgeoning, uncontrolled Internet sweepstakes cafe industry in Florida, asked Nehr in the fall to sign on as House co-sponsor of a bill regulating the business. But Nehr failed to file the bill and never disclosed to Fasano he was going into the very business the legislation was intended to regulate. That's dishonest at best and a conflict of interest at worst.
Nehr insists he is not engaged in a gaming enterprise since the sweepstakes card can be used as a phone card outside the cafe. But that is a hypocritical distinction without a difference. In the absence of clearly defined state regulations, 1,000 Internet sweepstakes cafes, which can rake in as much as $30,000 a week while paying out between 80 and 85 percent in winnings, have vexed law enforcement. Coats has threatened the shut the businesses down in Pinellas. The Legislature could clarify the situation with strong regulation. Now, because of Nehr's self-serving duplicity, such action likely has been delayed until next year's legislative session.
Nehr should have focused on his personal finances rather than on running for re-election. Now he has compromised his public position with his private business dealings in an area of questionable legality. If he is determined to engage in such a private business, he should get out of public office.