Pasco commissioners decide how much money the Sheriff's Office can spend each year, but their oversight does not include telling officers which laws to enforce.
On Tuesday, commissioners correctly called the bluff from Internet cafe enthusiasts who asked the county to deal some political pressure to Sheriff Chris Nocco. About 100 people came to the commission's meeting seeking relief from the recent raids that shut down four such cafes. They wanted a hiatus on enforcement until the Legislature meets in 2012.
One big problem with the request: The commission is powerless to act. Nocco and his deputies are enforcing state laws prohibiting unregulated gambling, not some county ordinance that the commission can suspend. The county's legal staff is scheduled to meet with Nocco, but made no promises to the customers, some of whom portrayed the sweepstakes sites as harmless distractions for senior citizens. They should fold this disingenuous argument and just stick to bingo.
At a typical Internet sweepstakes cafe, customers purchase a phone card, which gives them points to play various sweepstakes games on desktop computers. People are not surfing the Net or checking their e-mail accounts. They are being induced to wager the value of their sweepstakes tickets in the hope of winning more money. That is gambling.
Nocco and Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats believe the Internet cafes promote illegal gambling and have moved to confiscate equipment and close down the businesses. In Pinellas, owners of Internet sweepstakes cafes shifted their unregulated gambling operations from unincorporated areas of the county into cities after the crackdown. Police chiefs in Dade City, Zephyrhills, Port Richey and New Port Richey now need to be vigilant to ensure there is no repeat among Pasco's municipalities.
The real solution rests in Tallahassee. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was unsuccessful this spring in advancing a bill to regulate the businesses. The Legislature shouldn't turn a blind eye to illegal gambling and should devise regulations next session to reign in this burgeoning industry.