TAMPA, Fla. - A day after local, state, and federal authorities busted an Internet cafe organization that they say was running an illegal gambling ring, elected officials across Florida are planning an industry crackdown of all Internet sweepstakes.
In Tampa, more than 20 Internet cafes operate unregulated gaming, even though Hillsborough County banned the establishments from unincorporated parts of the county in late 2011. Last fall, the city issued a moratorium on new Internet cafes from opening, but it has struggled with how to shut down existing venues legally.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says his hands have been tied since he can't issue an executive order to close them down. And Tampa City Council Chair Charlie Miranda, who has worked in para-mutuals for the better part of 50 years, says writing an ordinance has been challenging.
However, on March 21, Tampa's council will hold a first hearing on a new ordinance it thinks will make it so uncomfortable for Internet cafes to survive, they'll have no choice but to go out of business. Restrictions include limiting the number of machines, types of machines, and ability to serve alcohol.
Yet business owners, like Richard Ratcliff at Bit Bar in Downtown Tampa, say operators like the non-profit busted Wednesday, Allied Veterans of the World, give them a bad name. He says his 20-something crowd only uses the machines for occasional entertainment purposes and he's concerned the city could hurt his business. Ratcliff welcomed 10 News inside to show the establishment was legitimate.
Tampa's actions may ultimately prove to be irrelevant. The Allied Veteran's scandal has re-cast the spotlight on Internet cafes, and despite their successful effort to thwart off a proposed ban in 2012, opponents in Tallahassee seem re-energized.
The Senate and House are both advancing bills to prohibit sweepstakes machines in Florida, while Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is writing legislation of his own.
"I think that the investigation into Allied Veterans and the widespread corruption and racketeering that it exposed has reinforced the need for the law to be clarified and for all of them to be banned," said Putnam. "They're clearly a gateway into organized crime and racketeering as this investigation proves and I'm hopeful the legislature will take swift action."
"I think with this news," Governor Rick Scott added, "everything is on the table. I look forward to working with the House and the Senate to review this."
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