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Gambling house or social club?

Greek men gather at the Hellenic Social Club for sandwiches, strong coffee and conversation, the club's founder says. The closest members come to gambling is the drive they take through traffic on U.S. 19 to get there.

But the FBI and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office say otherwise. Investigators have accused Andreas Plialis, 46, of operating a gambling business.

They say Plialis and the club's members play poker and craps until the wee hours of the morning.

"It wouldn't be uncommon for single pot to be $500," said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita.

Plialis, however, said members never gamble at the club, in a shopping center at 34014 U.S. 19 N.

"We don't hide that we play different games," Plialis said. "But everybody's clean. We've nothing to hide."

Deputies confiscated $7,000 in cash, playing cards, dice and three pool tables early Sunday morning, Tita said.

Members play card games and use dice in the club, but no one shoots craps, Plialis said. They use dice when they play Tabli, a Greek game similar to backgammon, he said.

Deputies and the FBI made much of the fact that some members were carrying large amounts of cash the night of the raid, Plialis said. But several members own restaurants and at the time were carrying the day's receipts, he said.

The club operates on money contributed each month by its 120 members and that covers about $950 in bills, Plialis said.

"Nobody makes a profit," said Plialis, who works for a company that manufactures traffic lights. "Sometimes I have to put in about $150 myself for rent."

Most nights, members gather about 10 or 11 p.m., Plialis said, including last Saturday night. Plialis and five other members stayed until 3:15 a.m. Sunday, he said.

As they were leaving, they were met in the parking lot by a dozen sheriff's deputies and FBI agents, Tita said. Plialis said he agreed to allow a search of the club and his home in Tarpon Springs.

"They tried to find money which I don't have," Plialis said.

Plialis was arrested and charged with keeping a gambling house, Tita said. Plialis was released later that day after posting $2,500 bail.

The arrest ended a year-long investigation of the club, Tita said. Investigators were following a tip that members were gambling at the club, formerly on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater, he said.

Plialis said detectives were acting on a bogus tip he said may have come from one of three disgruntled people who weren't allowed to join the club.

"We threw them out," Plialis said. "They've tried to muscle people."