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Hillsborough to draw up law banning sweepstakes cafes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 06:35 PM
TAMPA -

Usually one of the calmer, more-demure Hillsborough County commissioners, Sandy Murman broke out of character Wednesday when a fellow board member suggested delaying an ordinance to shut down internet sweepstakes cafés.

Murman made the motion to ban the cafés, which she described as illegal gambling operations that feature computerized slot machines. The county sheriff's office also supports a ban.

But Commissioner Victor Crist, raising the specter of lawsuits by the café owners, urged caution and suggested the county appoint a work group that included sweepstakes café owners to study the issue.

"I am totally surprised at what's come out of your mouth," Murman almost shouted at Crist, who served with her in the Florida Legislature. She pointed out that Crist had served for years on the state Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations.

"You can't sit at the table and try to work out a consensus with people that promote illegal gambling," she said.

After long debate, Crist withdrew his motion and the board voted 7-0 to have the county attorney draw up an ordinance banning the cafés. A public hearing on the matter will be held sometime in coming months.

The cafés have proliferated in Hillsborough as adjoining counties have moved to shut them down. Murman said there are now 25 operating in the unincorporated areas of the county, and an unknown number in Tampa.

The businesses, which often locate in strip malls, sell internet time on computers. Patrons get phone cards that allow them to participate in sweepstakes contests that are just like playing a slot machine on a computer.

Chris Brown, a lawyer with the sheriff's office, said the video sweepstakes games meet the state's legal definition of slot machines, which are largely prohibited in Florida.

"They are illegal gambling," Brown said.

But the cafés have persisted because of the ambiguity of state gambling law, Brown said. The law's loopholes make it difficult to successfully prosecute café owners, who often fight back with civil lawsuits.

Defenders of the cafés say they are no different than the sweepstake cards that some businesses give to customers who buy something.

Jacksonville attorney Kelly B. Mathis, representing a not-for-profit called Allied Veterans, said Brown mislead the commission about the legality of the cafés.

"No judge has ever held that they are illegal, that they're slot machines," Mathis said after the meeting. Mathis said the veterans group, which operates about 40 internet cafés in Florida, would welcome "reasonable regulation."

Commissioner Mark Sharp asked whether the board should wait to see if the Legislature passes clarifying legislation to the gambling statute next year. But Commissioner Kevin Beckner, citing the Legislature's failure to deal with personal injury protection insurance fraud, nixed the idea.

"We need to protect our own community and not wait for Tallahassee to act," Beckner said. "We have that responsibility as legislators up here to do what we feel are in the best interest of our community."


msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303

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