SPRING HILL, Florida -- Supporters of Internet cafes packed a Florida Senate Committee on Tuesday, saying they are great forms of entertainment and don't hurt anyone. But that didn't stop the committee from voting to ban them, following the arrest of several operators of the Allied Veterans of the World cafes.
The state says Allied Veterans of the World falsely claimed it gave a huge portion of its profits to veterans, but Internet cafe operators are trying to convince the state they are providing harmless entertainment. Many tell the committee they are not taking advantage of people, mainly senior citizens, who come to their operations.
Some who go to the cafes can't understand what the big fuss is about, telling senators they enjoy their time there. However, as the arrest of more than 50 people involved with Allied Veterans of the World shows, many of the cafes were being run by people with lengthy criminal records. Anthony Alascia, who lives in Spring Hill, is a prime example.
Alascia, who is facing several charges including racketeering, is an admitted gambling addict. He has a record of arrests that stretch from New Jersey to Florida, dating back to the '70s and continuing to his arrest last month. Those charges include assault with a weapon, computer crimes, grand theft, DUI, passing checks, and tax evasion. Alascia was also arrested for creating a non-existent bank account so he could use the money to gamble.
Now Alascia and his co-conspirators in Allied Veterans are charged with bilking millions of dollars from people like Peggy Johnson, who says, "They have drained everything, bank accounts, 401K, everything."
Johnson, who says she lost more than $50,000 at an Allied Veterans cafe, places some blame on the state, saying, "I'm amazed it took this many years for this to be discovered."
Now, the state is cracking down on the cafes. An indictment came down that led to the resignation of Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll, who was involved in promoting the cafes, and now the legislature is poised to outlaw them altogether.
Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam says of the cafes, "They are clearly a gateway into organized crime and racketeering, as this investigation proves, and I'm hopeful the legislature will take swift action."
While Putnam says he hopes the legislature will move quickly to regulate or put out of business other Internet cafes, his department, which is in charge of regulating the industry, either hasn't had the authority or the desire to do anything about Allied Veterans until now.
Take the case of attorney Miriam Wilkinson, who testified in a hearing about the cafes. "These are lawful, these are not simulated gambling," she says.
Wilkinson worked for the Department of Agriculture, and was in charge of regulating Internet cafes until she quit -- and went right to work for attorney Kelly Mathis, the same man the FDLE says is the kingpin behind Allied Veterans.
And Peggy Johnson, who lost so much money at the cafes, is astounded it took so long for the state to step in, saying, "It was illegal activity going on behind the doors, an elaborate a scheme."
Many taken for a ride by the alleged scheme and felons like Alascia say the state has to share some of the blame.
Meanwhile, Alascia's attorney, Barry Cohen, admits his client has a checkered past, but says he is a changed man and didn't believe he was doing anything wrong, because until now the state declined to prosecute and the Agriculture Department said it was legal.