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Politics

Official: Internet cafe ban boosts Lottery sales


Published:   |   Updated: July 15, 2013 at 10:26 PM

TALLAHASSEE - The state's ban on Internet cafes may have boosted sales of Florida Lottery games, a top official said Monday, though he offered no clear evidence.

"We have an impression by our people that it has helped the scratch-off games," said Dennis Harmon, the Lottery's deputy secretary for product development and research.

Harmon, speaking at a state revenue estimating conference, later included the Cash 3, Play 4 and Fantasy 5 games in his assessment.

"I wouldn't call this a loose correlation," he told The Tampa Tribune. "We see some evidence of a modest, positive impact from (the ban) on those games, but we have not yet quantified it."

The ban effectively shut down more than 1,000 businesses across the state where patrons could play online computer games that simulated slot machine play.

When asked to explain, Harmon pointed to numbers that show a $66 million increase for scratch-off games from when the ban took effect on April 10 to the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

That increase is the difference from sales projections and actual sales as reported. The combined increase for Cash 3, Play 4 and Fantasy 5 was $10.3 million.

The lawyer for one South Florida Internet cafe operator, who is among several now suing to overturn the ban, called the comparison "absurd."

Miami attorney Justin Kaplan said it could be just as easy to attribute a rise in casino attendance to the ban. "It's pure hyperbole," he said.

The state's decision to ban Internet cafes came on the heels of a multistate investigation into a major cafe operator, the Allied Veterans of the World charity. It resulted in dozens of arrests and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

Before her election, Carroll had provided public relations representation to Allied. She was not accused of wrongdoing.

Allied was affiliated with dozens of storefront centers and was accused of running a $290 million illegal gambling business. Most of the proceeds went to the owners, not toward helping veterans, investigators said.

Weeks later, lawmakers passed a ban and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.

State law now prohibits any "device or system or network of devices" that plays like a slot machine. Slots can be played legally in Florida only at certain Indian casinos and dog and horse tracks.

Questions about the cafes' legality have swirled for years. Cafe operators had said they offered sweepstakes, which were permitted, because there was a predetermined number of winners.

They often compared their games to the popular McDonald's Monopoly promotion.

Kaplan says his client wasn't providing gambling, but rather selling Internet access, comparing his client's services to public pay phones. They did also offer "game promotions," or a legal sweepstakes, he said.

The state's ban also affected senior arcades, mostly found in South Florida. It requires games of skill to be coin-operated and limits winnings per round to 75 cents.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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