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New Trial Ordered For Internet Cafe Attorney

Brian Turner

TALLAHASSEE — An appeals court Friday ordered a new trial for a prominent Jacksonville attorney who was convicted on racketeering and gambling-related charges after authorities cracked down on internet cafes across the state.

Kelly Mathis, a former president of the Jacksonville Bar Association, was convicted on 103 charges stemming from his work for the group Allied Veterans of the World, which operated dozens of internet cafes that were raided and shut down in 2013 because of illegal gambling.

In an 11-page ruling Friday, a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal said Mathis "dealt with Allied Veterans solely in the scope of an attorney-client relationship" and said a circuit judge improperly barred Mathis from presenting evidence that could have showed he was doing legitimate legal work — rather than aiding an illegal operation.

"Appellant (Mathis) neither invested in nor received profits from the business," said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge F. Rand Wallis and joined by judges Richard Orfinger and James Edwards. "The only financial benefit appellant received from Allied Veterans came from attorney's fees incurred in the course of representing the organization.

When Allied Veterans expressed interest in expanding the cafes, appellant undertook additional legal research on the proposed location to ensure compliance with zoning ordinances and other local laws, which included speaking with various local authorities — such as police chiefs and assistant state attorneys.

Prior to expansion, appellant presented Allied Veterans with a report recommending whether it could feasibly open an affiliate in the proposed location." Internet cafes, which critics derided as "storefront casinos," offered electronic games that authorities said were akin to slot machines.

The 2013 crackdown led to lawmakers effectively shutting down the industry and helped spur the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who previously had done consulting work for Allied Veterans of the World. During Mathis' trial, which took place in Seminole County, prosecutors alleged that he "knowingly provided false legal advice" about the internet cafes, according to Friday's ruling.

A jury found Mathis guilty of one count of racketeering, 51 counts of conducting an illegal lottery and 51 counts of possessing an illegal slot machine. But the appeals court said Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester had improperly prevented Mathis from presenting evidence about issues such as local-government ordinances that regulated and allowed internet cafes.

The ruling said, for example, that Mathis should have been allowed to "offer evidence negating his intent to commit racketeering."

"The state's persistent trial theme involved repeatedly arguing that appellant knowingly assisted Allied Veterans in operating an illegal sweepstakes," the ruling said. "Yet, the testimony established that appellant diligently researched the legal issues before concluding that Florida law did not prohibit internet cafes."

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.