Internet sweepstakes cafes in Florida have operated in the open, though always on the precipice of extinction.
Tampa Bay area politicians were keen to shut down what they regarded as illegal gambling parlors, but the businesses hung on because of gray areas in state law and litigation.
But on Wednesday, a multistate investigation of Allied Veterans of the World, one of the larger Internet cafe operators, resulted in nearly 60 arrests in what authorities say was a $300 million illegal gambling operation.
Overnight, the state’s remaining Internet sweepstakes cafes faced a bleak future. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said the House could vote as early as next week to shut the parlors down. Political leaders throughout Tallahassee echoed his prediction that all such cafes in Florida will be out of business in a matter of, at the most, a few months.
A handful of Tampa-area cafe workers and customers said Thursday it is unfair for them to be painted with the same stain of incrimination facing Allied Veterans. They repeated the industry’s mantra that cafes sell Internet time and let customers apply to win sweepstakes, the same as those offered by fast-food restaurants and the Florida lottery.
Though the customers play the sweepstakes on computer terminals with imagery that mimics slot machines, they insist what they’re doing is not gambling because the winners are predetermined.
“This thing with the Allied Veterans gives a black mark to the whole industry,” said Dave Plunkett, who manages two Internet rooms in northwest Hillsborough. “The powers that be are going to use this to their advantage; they’re going to slander the rest of the business by using the Allied Veterans.”
Plunkett said the industry changed the way it operated after the Hillsborough County Commission voted in December 2011 to ban sweepstakes cafes. To sidestep the comparison with slot machines, the industry switched to personal identification numbers that are purchased at the counter, meaning customers don’t put money into the machines.
But late last year, the county commission amended the ordinance to specifically outlaw “simulated gambling devices.” Code Enforcement Director Dexter Barge said he sent officers to the remaining cafes to educate the operators about the amended ordinance and that enforcement would start this year.
Plunkett said he thinks his businesses are in compliance and said he hasn’t been visited by code enforcement this year. If the state shuts down his businesses, Plunkett said, he can find another job. But he’s angry at the state politicians, whom he says are carrying water for the Seminole Indian tribe that operates the only legal casinos in Florida.
“I think the Seminole tribe is lobbying very heavily against anything that’s going to take money out of their pockets,” he said. “They don’t want big casinos to come to the state of Florida and they don’t want sweepstakes in the state. They want control.”
Tampa has placed a ban on new cafes, but two were open Thursday afternoon on Busch Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue. A dozen or so patrons, mostly women, sat in darkened rooms staring at computer terminals as the screens flashed. The rooms were quiet except for radio music.
Shonel White, who works at the Busch Boulevard parlor, said he was not aware his livelihood was on a state hit list. He had just come to Tampa from Seminole County, where he worked in another sweepstakes cafe for 21/2 years.
He wasn’t happy about the prospect of losing his job.
“We’re different from Allied Veterans,” White said. “It seems like they just cared about themselves. We care about our customers.”
White said a woman recently came in crying because her family had forgotten her birthday. Cafe workers bought her roses and celebrated her birthday, he said.